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Mikeitz: Forget Me Not

Forgetting is a fascinating human phenomenon. There are multiple areas of the brain responsible for memory, and there are different kinds of memory stored in those areas of the brain. We have short and long term memory, working memory, sensory memory, such as memories related to smells we’ve encountered or sounds we once heard, and emotional memory, as events with higher emotional valence tend to be more memorable than others. There are many variables that impact our ability to store and recall all sorts of information, and the capacity for remembering – and forgetting – affects our learning, our relationships, and our overall functioning.

I often tell my patients that therapy is only as helpful as the degree to which it makes its way into their day-to-day lives. Forty-five minutes or an hour a week is a negligible percentage of a person’s life; in fact, there are 168 hours in a week, which means most of a person’s life happens outside of therapy. For this reason, most effective behavioral therapy relies on between-session practice of new skills or ideas to generalize these new ways of thinking or behaving into the arena of a person’s actual life during those remaining 166 hours. Often, patients agree to do this kind of “homework” between sessions, whether that’s tracking their mood or a specific behavior, trying out a skill or some other technique, but when the next session comes around, they report that they forgot to complete the practice.

As scientists of human behavior, we therapists don’t like to take “I forgot” at face value. We recognize that there is more to forgetting than something just simply slipping one’s mind. As such, when patients say that they forgot to practice or monitor something during the week, we get curious with them about what contributed to their forgetfulness, or what got in the way of remembering, a process known in DBT as a missing links analysis. We wonder, was the task itself of great enough importance to warrant being stored in their memory, or was it disregarded, and no thought about it even came up to begin with? Did something or multiple things occur during the week that took up more space, time, or emotional energy, knocking the information about the practice to the back burner of their mind? Would a reminder, such as a phone alarm, have helped to keep the task in the person’s awareness until behavioral repetition (actually doing it over and over) kicked in to make it a habit? We explore all of these options, because we know that remembering something is not as simple as having a thought about it at some point during the week. Remembering – and forgetting – is a complex process.

In this week’s Parsha, Pharaoh has a series of strange dreams that deeply perturb him. In seeking an explanation and interpretation for these dreams, Pharaoh’s butler suddenly remembers Yosef, who had interpreted his dream for him while he was in jail. This is in direct contrast to the butler’s experience of forgetting Yosef at the end of Parshas Vayeishev, as the pasuk (40:23) says, “vilo zachar sar hamashkim es Yosef, vayishkacheyhu,” and the butler did not remember Yosef, he forgot him. Rashi notes that Hashem made sure the butler forgot Yosef, because Yosef inappropriately placed too much faith in the butler rather than God himself to get him out of jail. The butler remembers Yosef because on a Divine level, the time was ripe for the next stage of Yosef’s journey, and al pi derech hatevah, according to the “natural” order of the world, because Pharaoh’s dream experience reminded the butler of his own disturbing and fateful dream.

Later, when Yosef is interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, he interprets the symbolism of the seven skinny cows and stalks of grain eating the seven fat cows and stalks of grain as indicating that the seven years of famine will be so terrible that “vinishkach kol hasovah asher bimitzrayim,” all the years of plenty that came before the famine will be forgotten (41:30). Even further on in the Parsha, we read about Yosef’s children, born to him in Mitzrayim. He names the eldest son Menashe, “Ki nashani elokim es kol amalai v’es kol beis avi,” because Hashem made me forget all my hardships and my father’s house.

One might ask, is it really possible that the people of Egypt will actually be unable to recall the prior years of plenty in the wake of the terrible famine? And furthermore, how it can be that Yosef truly forgets his hardships; does his rise to power in Pharaoh’s palace really cause amnesia? Yet sometimes, challenges and negative events can eclipse previous positive and pleasant experiences to the degree that we almost forget them entirely, and the same can be true in reverse. Like a woman who experiences childbirth but “forgets” the pain, happiness and accomplishment can serve to decrease the potency of memories of prior painful or upsetting events.

Moreover, however, Rav Wolbe wonders what Yosef means when he says that he forgot his father’s house. We know that Rashi, according to the Midrash, explains that Yosef was only able to resist the seduction of Eishes Potifar because he was thinking about his father. Also, in Parshas Vayigash, Yosef sends chariots to his father as a sign that he remembers their learning about the Eglah Arufah. Clearly, Yosef did not actually forget his father’s house! Rav Wolbe explains that there are many ways to forget something, or someone, and that the Torah has a higher barometer for forgetting our values and neglecting our roots. For Yosef, any slight deviation from the traditions and teachings of his father’s house, even in the name of his job as second in command to the king, could be considered an act of forgetting.

This is most akin to what we say in Al Hanissim on Chanukah about the intent of the Greeks, “LiHashkicham Torasecha,” that they wanted Bnei Yisrael to forget Hashem’s Torah. Short of a lobotomy or some other direct neurological assault, causing someone to forget something is quite difficult. However, there are far less invasive ways to accomplish this, as exhibited by many of our enemies over the generations, and by our Yetzer Hara on a daily basis. When shinier, more important objects, tasks, people, or even causes or opportunities distract us, other engagements or obligations fall to the wayside. When we are inundated with other peoples’ values and ideas, our own begin to get blurry around the edges of our consciousness, or to fade entirely.

This was the Greeks’ objective: to cause us to forget the Torah by filling the spaces in the memory storage centers of our brains with anti-Torah matter, and by stopping us from having the opportunity to remember our faith through practice. By banning Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, Bris Milah, and the like, the Greeks attacked not only our capacity to forget Torah in exchange for filling our heads and hearts with their ideology, but also our ability to remember and reengage with Torah Judaism through tangible reminders across the calendar of our lives.

Memory is a powerful tool. As human beings, we have the capacity, like Yosef, to “forget” past hardships when we encounter new triumphs, or by making meaning of past pain and suffering through new experiences or perspective. And, at the same time, our actions affect our memory, as well. We can inhibit the recollection of unhelpful pieces of information or learning that is no longer effective for us, a process behavioral scientists call inhibitory learning. Similarly, we can fill our minds with information, values, or ideas that leave little room for other, perhaps more important content. The more we are engaged on a continuous basis with specific ideas or practices, the more we internalize them, and the more a part of us they become. As such, we must be mindful of what is filling our minds, and what may be lost or begin to fade as a result.

This week, consider whether your memory is serving you as best as it can be. What aspects of your life are being forgotten, and what is getting in the way of remembering that which once was so important to recall? If we take the time to consider these important concepts, perhaps we can utilize the power of our memory to maintain the spark of Chanukah long after the last lights have been extinguished.

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