Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
Known as the Shema, many devout Jews pray the opening words of this passage from Deuteronomy 6 morning and evening. They follow the instructions to say these words so that they remember them, keeping them in their heart. What is interesting to me is that God offered such concrete instructions to ensure not only that we hear but also remember.
Recite them to the next generation in your home and outside of it, and again as you fall sleep and as you awake. Remember them in everything you do with your hands, and may they be as evident to others as if tattooed across your forehead.
The link to memory is more explicit in Numbers 15 when the Shema is again referenced: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them… So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God.’”
We are to remember that the God who brought the people of Israel out of Egypt is the same God who brought the people out of exile centuries later. Even more, our God is the one who offered us salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are to remember our God and to love our God with all our heart and soul and might.
To hear and thereby remember this essential commandment, God created us with memory. God’s other great book, the book of nature, helps us to understand how the act of remembering works.
Pause & Reflect:
Watch the first 4 minutes of this video that describes what we know about how memory works. Ponder the complexity of memory; the remarkable capacity of our minds to create a lasting memory from our working memory and then be able to reconstruct it later. What emotions do you feel as you consider how it is that we remember?
A Ball in the Woods
One of my sharpest memories—it plays back like a hi-def video—is of the woods just beyond right center field tucked between the interstate highway and the back ballfield at Yeonas Park in Vienna, Virginia. It is where I hit my first home run—a deep flyball that sailed over the fence and into those woods. My favorite part of the memory, however, is seeing my dad as I rounded first base running towards right field. Walking back to the dugout, I could see him in the woods looking for the ball which he delivered to my coach later that inning. I have that ball, but it is the vividness of that memory that I treasure most.
I had no idea at the time that my working memory was implanting this memory, distributing it in pieces throughout my mind that I would recall vividly when I watched my dad first play catch with my eldest daughter, or when watching her softball games hoping for a chance to show how proud I am to be her dad by searching beyond the outfield fence for a yellow orb with red seams.
Pause & Reflect:
Recall one of your most satisfying and vivid memories. Does it replay like a video, or is it more of a still picture? Does it have music or words, smell or taste? What moments or emotions trigger it? Relive that memory; savor the emotions that come with it; enjoy that place, the people, and all that it represents.
Now consider the process in your brain that captured that experience and implanted it as a memory that today you can so vividly recall. Give God thanks for that particular memory.
From Memory Towards Hope
After introducing the ways Jorge Luis Borges detailed the fallibility of our memory, psychologist Cody Kommers writes, “In (his book) ‘Funes the Memorious,’ Borges anticipated what modern neuroscience has evidenced. We make our way through the world precisely because we forget, generalize, and make abstractions. The act of memory is an act of imagination.”
Of course, we know that memories (even memory itself) can fade. We are fallen, so even some of our most remarkable God-given abilities falter. Moreover, memories are not all happy. We remember both the good and the bad. This should not surprise us. Our faith teaches us that we are both fearfully and wonderfully made and at the same time fallible. Memory mirrors this reality.
This is why the Shema comes with those instructions: to ensure that we remember that our God is one and that we should love that God with all that we are. For some of us, remembering that truth will be as easy as sleeping and waking, and for others, well, some extra guidance is necessary to keep these words in our hearts.
Remember, the act of remembering something seems to be a recreation of many bits that are recalled from locations throughout the brain to recreate the memory. It is not a single MP4 filed in a specific neuron or synapse. It is distributed and imagined into being each and every time we recall it. This is precisely why a memory can fade, or even change, over time.
Research on memory has shown that certain types of memory loss correspond with an inability to imagine a future. Individuals that lose episodic memory—they can’t recall personal experiences like my memory of dad searching for a ball in the woods—sometimes cannot imagine what they might do the next day. Within our neurobiology, the process of reexperiencing the past is connected to how we envision our experience of the future.
The deep truth of the Shema is that the one God, our God, has done great things in the past and when we remember them, and remember our God as the source of all good things, we can imagine a future. Memory is tied not only to imagination but ultimately to hope.
And hope—the kind that comes when we remember our God—is something we desperately need.
P.S. For more on memory, consider reading another of our posts from a few years ago. We dig into some neuroscience of memory formation and the ways it matters for community.