Yom Kippur – Where the Wild Things Are

Congregation Beth Israel
Wednesday, September 19, 2018 | 10 Tishrei, 5779

Yom Kippur is our time to make confessions, so there is a big confession I want to share. Where the Wild Things Are, is not a good book. There, I said it. Already I can feel a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders and can breath easier. This Yom Kippur is a success. Thank you and have a great day.

Ok. There’s more to it than that.

When I was very young, Where the Wild Things Are was my favorite book. Or at least I remember it that way. It was filled with fun, adventure, excitement, and a sense of freedom and wonder. It just could not get any better. And so at some point this past year while examining our collection of bedtime books for Micah, I realized this was a major absence on our shelf. Within about 3 minutes I had ordered the book on Amazon and two days later it was on our doorstep. That night, I could not wait to read the book to Micah for the first time, and really to read it to myself for the first time in decades. 

Where the Wild Things Are 
by Maurice Sendak

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything. That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are. 

And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said “BE STILL!” and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things. “And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!” “Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. 

And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the wild things are. But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go we’ll eat you up-we love you so!” And Max said, “No!” The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.”

After reading it with Micah, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. That’s it? The whole story is only 338 words and about ten sentences. There are literally 6 pages in the middle with no words on them at all – just pictures of the wild rumpus. How could this have been my favorite book when so little actually happened in it? I remembered it being so much deeper and more dramatic and fun. And yet here it was, coming up short in so many ways. Had the book changed? Had I changed? Or had I remembered it wrong?

Memory is perhaps our greatest gift. It enables us to learn lessons from our past and carry with us the wisdom of previous generations. It allows us to hold on to loved ones, carrying them with us in everything we do. Even something as simple as remembering where we left our keys would not be possible without the gift of memory.

This is something we feel especially true as Jews, not only the gift of remembering, but the obligation to do so. It’s inherent in who we are. We are commanded to “remember the sabbath day and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). We are obligated to “remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt” (Deut 25:17). In a few minutes we’ll recite Eilleh Ezk’rah, “These I remember,” the section of the Amidah that recalls our martyrs throughout history. This afternoon we’ll say Yizkor, “Remember,” our memorial prayers for departed love ones about whom we also say “Yehi Zichram Baruch,” “may their memories be for a blessing.” We commemorate Yom HaShoah each year with a single word, “Zachor,” “Remember.” One of the other names for Rosh Hashanah is “Yom HaZikaron,” “the Day of Remembrance.” Memory is in everything we do.

Writer Jonathan Safran Foer calls memory the Jewish sixth sense. “Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks… that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?” (Everything Is Illuminated)

Memory is a part of us, a major part of us. We cannot imagine Judaism without the blessing of memory. But at the same time, memory also carries with it any number of curses. As strong and as vivid memories can be, they are not always accurate. This is not just a simple matter of forgetting things over time or as we get older. Even the memories we hold and cherish can sometimes betray us.

A few years ago there was a controversy surrounding NBC News anchor Brian Williams. (You might remember it) If you’re not familiar, Williams had served as a correspondent for NBC during the 2003 Iraq War. In one incident, in March of that year, he was embedded among a squadron of Army helicopters that came under fire. In his initial reports he said one of the helicopters in his group was hit by RPG fire and forced into an emergency landing. 

Over the next ten years, as Williams recounted this incident in various settings, some details of his telling began to change. When he mentioned the story in January of 2015 he said that the helicopter he was traveling in was “forced down after being hit by an RPG.” Watching that broadcast was Lance Reynolds, a flight engineer on one of the choppers that was struck, who had no memory of Williams on board. After a cycle of research and investigations, it became clear that Williams was not in fact onboard a ship that was hit, but was following behind miles away and arrived on the scene after the emergency landings. This error led to a 6-month suspension for Williams and losing his position as anchor of NBC Nightly News. But what was his error? Did he lie and commit the biggest crime a journalist can make, or did he remember something incorrectly?

In an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, Gladwell examines this controversy and argues that our memories are oftentimes more fluid and malleable than we may realize. “Everyone assumes memory is a time-stamped video of what happened in your life,” Gladwell says, “and that if you contradict the evidence of the video you’re up to no good. I’m sorry but that’s insane.”  

Gladwell spoke with experts in Memory Psychology, the study of how people remember things, and learned that many of our memories are far from perfect. They looked in particular at “flashbulb memories,” exceptionally vivid ‘snapshots’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard. For example, the attacks of September 11. Where were you when you first heard the news? Who were you with? What did you do? How did you feel? In a massive project led by researchers from NYU and the New School, psychologists surveyed more than 3,000 people first in the days immediately following the attack asking them these same questions, and then followed up after a year, after three, and then again after ten years. Each time, researchers found people remembered less and less accurately. To be clear, people did not forget the facts of the attacks themselves, but the details of who they were with and where, did change over time. As NYU psychologist and lead investigator of the project Elizabeth Phelps explained, “Emotion kind of focuses you on a few details but lets you ignore other details… What we’ve known for a while is that emotion gives you a stronger confidence in your memory than it does necessarily in the accuracy… So if you look at memory for 9/11, pretty much everybody would say, “I know where I was, who I was with,” Everyone thinks, “Oh, I never would forget that.” But we know from a lot of studies from the past 30 years that people aren’t necessarily right. You can’t even convince people that their memories are wrong. All you can say is that data would suggest your memory’s wrong.”

As she explains, many people aren’t even aware their memories are wrong. Confidence in those memories remain high, but accuracy degrades. Gladwell tells the story of people seeing their own first-person accounts of 9/11, written in their own handwriting, but remain convinced they were wrong in the days just after the attacks, and not on reading them years later. Does this make someone a liar, or does it mean memories are not perfect? What does that make Brian Williams? Did he lie to give himself a better, more dramatic story, or did his memories get jumbled up over time, with multiple tellings and versions converging to form a different narrative?

And what does this make of our own memories? We all remember walking to school in the snow uphill both ways, but do we really? What else could we be misremembering? Do our memories, however accurate or not, do they set impossible standards for us to live up to? Could Where the Wild Things Are ever have been as good as I remembered it? 

As much as memory is inherent in who we are, letting go of those memories and forgetting has a place too. In a few minutes when we recite Unetaneh Tokef we’ll acknowledge just that. “Truly, You are the one who judges and reproves, who knows all and bears witness, who inscribes and seals, who reckons and enumerates,” we’ll say of Adonai. “You remember all that is forgotten.” The implication being that God is the only one who truly remembers all. We as humans cannot come close to this. 

Likewise the medieval Jewish philosopher, Bachya ibn Pakuda taught that forgetting didn’t just happen, but is an essential part of a healthy and happy life. “Were it not for the ability to forget, a man would never be free from melancholy. No joyous occasion would dispel his sadness. The events that should delight him would afford him no please, when he recalled the troubles of life. Even from the realization of his hopes he could not hope to derive rest and peace of mind. He would never regain from grieving. Thus you see how memory and forgetfulness, different and contrary to each other as they are, are both endowments bestowed upon man, and each of them has its uses.”

Just like we need to remember, we also need to forget. In order to be restful, to be at peace, to be happy, we need to forget. Of course there are some things we can never forget. The Shoah, the Holocaust, our collective tragedies and histories, our families and loved ones, these always stay with us as a part of who we are. But maybe, there are pieces we can let go. Do we need to always compare what we have now to the “good old days”? Do we need to always be worried we’re losing something we once had? Must we be constantly concerned about dilution, that our history, that our past success are withering away because of our present choices? Are our youngest generations always at fault for waning commitments and losing sight of the big picture that our parents of course understood? 

Instead of constantly creating these invidious comparisons and holding what we see in the present up to what we remember of the past, what’s more important is what we do with those memories and how they carry us into the future. 

When we recite Yizkor this afternoon, perhaps our ultimate act of remembrance, we recite individual memorial prayers for each of our departed loved ones. Included in those prayers is the phrase, הנני נודב צדקה בעד הזכרת נשמתם  – “In loving testimony to their lives, I pledge tzedakah to help perpetuate ideals important to them.” How is it we recall our loved ones’ memories? By pledging tzedakah, by helping those here in the present and into the future. It really is a fitting tribute because there is perhaps nothing as impactful, and as strong as tzedakah itself. The Talmud teaches just that, that Tzedakah delivers from death.

“Rabbi Yehudah would say: There are ten strong things created in this world: rock is strong, but iron breaks it. Iron is strong, but fire melts it. Fire is strong, but water extinguishes it. Water is strong, but the clouds carry it. Clouds are strong, but wind drives them. Wind is strong, but man withstands it. Man is strong, but fear weakens him. Fear is strong, but wine removes it, Wine is strong, but sleep overcomes it. Sleep is strong, but death stands over it. What is stronger than death? Acts of charity (Tzedakah), for it is written, “Tzedakah delivers from death.” (Proverbs 10:2) (Bava Batra 10a)

Tzedakah delivers from death. How can this be so? Nothing delivers us from our ultimate end. But that is the power of Tzedakah, to create our own legacy, and allow the legacy of our loved ones to live on. To ensure that their values, their presence, their memories, however imperfect, continue to stay with us. “They’re really not dead, as long as we remember them.” (Adapted from Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan) 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom teaches, “Judaism gave two majestic ideas their greatest religious expression: memory and hope. Memory is our living connection to those who came before us. Hope is what we hand on to the generations yet to come.” (Koren Yom Kippur Mahzor, p. 758) For so long we have focused on our memories, our first great gift. We have learned, and taught, and preached its importance. As Sacks further teaches, “The greatest danger any civilisation faces is when it suffers from collective amnesia.” (British House of Lords, 9/13/18)

But knowing that our memories are flawed, we also look to our second great gift – hope, Tikvah. Yom Kippur is itself a day based on hope. Sure it’s reflective and contemplative, but that reflection is a tool to create hope for the year ahead. Our greeting for this day – G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we be sealed in the book of life, is hopeful and optimistic for the coming year. Our mood on this day is serious, but not sombre. We focus on our prayer, but hope that forgiveness and celebrations will soon be at hand. Likewise the Psalm for the Season of Repentance, Psalm 27, that we’ve been saying every day since the start of Elul, concludes on a dramatically hopeful note. קַוֵּה אֶל־ה׳ חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל־ה׳׃ Hope in the Lord. Be strong and of good courage, and hope in the Lord! (Psalm 27:14) Our tradition recognizes that even at this contemplative time of year, we look to hope for comfort. And as we sound the shofar tonight we’ll conclude our celebration with the words לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בִּירוּשָׁלַיִם: – Next year in Jerusalem! Our ultimate hope. The hope of the future, that hope that we will continue to use our past to move us forward. The hope that just as the Jewish people have been around for 3,000 years, we’ll be around for another 3,000.

Even though my own memories of Where the Wild Things Are didn’t hold up over time, they still stayed strong enough for me to want to share it with my own son thirty years later. And with my changed perspective on the book these days, I’ve learned much more of what really made it so special. Originally, Maurice Sendak planned the book to be called “Land of Wild Horses,” but then realized he didn’t know how to draw horses. On a suggestion from his editor, he changed the title to “Wild Things” based on the translation of the yiddish “vilde chaya.” The pictures too are based on Sendak’s relatives, all Jewish immigrants from Poland who would come visit him as a child on Sunday afternoons, perhaps the original “wild things” he sought to get away from.

I see now, that the story is deeper too then I remembered. It’s about children’s dreams, it’s about freedom, and always being able to go home. Did I realize all that when I was young? Of course not. But my memory, however flawed it was, did just enough to keep me interested. Even though my memories of the story let me down, the story of my memories picked me right back up.

Where the Wild Things Are may not be the deepest book, with the most complex character narrative. But if it inspires kids to read, if it brings families together, if it connects us to pieces of Jewish history, maybe I can forgive its literary brevity in light of the greater good. Maybe I can forgive my own memory for building the book up into an unattainable status and find a new appreciation for what it is and creates for me today. A story, a moment, I can share with my son. A sense of appreciation for memories from the past, but also the optimism of hope for the future. And the understanding that as far away as you go, if you sail out over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night, you can still go back to your very own room with supper waiting for you. And it was still hot.