The Power of Forgetting

by Ephraim Portnoy

In the view of most people, forgetting is a big problem. But for the Rebbe, forgetting has great virtue. If there wasn’t forgetfulness, nothing could be done in the service of God. If one remembered everything that he’s been through, he wouldn’t be able to lift himself up in his service of God, in any way. Remembering would also greatly confound a person with all the things he has been through. But now, through forgetfulness, we can disregard anything that already happened….


The Rebbe’s way was that everything that has already happened is as if it ceases to and ends completely, and didn’t enter his mind any more at all. He didn’t bother himself at all with what has already passed and gone, etc.


This is very good way of advice in the service of God, because usually a person has many things that are bothering him about things that already happened… Sometimes he’s bothered about his business and what went on at home and so on, that he didn’t act the right and so on …


Therefore forgetting is very good, that as soon as something passes, to remove it from your mind completely and completely distract yourself from it, not to start thinking any about it at all … (Sichos HaRan #26)

Most people tend to think of forgetfulness as something undesirable. We want to remember our past, because without our own history we are afraid of losing connection with who we are. When it comes to relationships, we are afraid that if we would forget our personal narrative of ourselves, and all the more so of our relationship, we would lose the relationship itself.

For sure, remembering has it time and place. Remembering the good parts of our story is of course good. There’s also  place to remember unpleasant things, in order to learn from them and to correct them.

But it’s important to know that there is also a time and place for forgetting. Sometimes we need to forget even the good things that we’ve experienced. We need to allow ourselves to enjoy them again as if we never experienced them before. It’s important to be able to forget what we already learned. That way we can approach the material with the freshness and enthusiasm of someone who never learned it before.  Do Mitzvos as if we’ve never done them before. Forget that you’ve already done them thousands of times.

All the more so we need to make a place for forgetting past painful experiences. Remembering them and keeping them in mind holds us back from connecting to the moment that we’re in right now.

When we’re supposed to be engaged in serving Hashem, we start remembering all the mistakes we’ve made until now. These things always come up at the wrong time.  When we’re supposed to be praying we’re thinking about all of our mistakes that we may have made at work. We start worrying about what went on at home when we’re supposed to be studying Torah. When we’re supposed to be connecting to prayer or to learning we suddenly start thinking over everything we did wrong until now.

We think about all of the past, painful memories instead of concentrating on what we’re supposed to be doing at that moment. We become overwhelmed with memories of trying to do what’s right and failing.

We can see this happening in our personal relationships also with our spouse or our children and so on. One of the things that gets in the way of relationships developing, growing and flourishing is its own history. We start remembering bad memories of things past instead of being engaged in building and strengthening our relationship. Instead of  forging a connection at the present moment, we get overwhelmed with memories of mistakes that upset  and disturb us.

If we could only ignore all other context and just take the moment for itself. Try connecting to whoever it is as if you had no history at all up until the present moment. You would be able to connect in such a positive way, that could serve to build and strengthen your relationship. But instead of concentrating on the moment we let ourselves be upset by the entire history of the relationship. Memories of things we are sorry to have said or regret to have heard get in the way of connecting right now.

The Rebbe advises us to just forget everything that happened until now. Forget all the mistakes you made and forget all of the painful experiences. There’s a time an a place to deal with that, but it’s not now. Right now it’s good to be amnesiac. Concentrate only on the task at hand.

Enjoy your time with your spouse or your friend. Forget anything which makes it hard to connect to the moment. Don’t let yourself think about memories which will sour the moment or take away from your full engagement. Even forget having a good time if it will help you connect now with a new enthusiasm.

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