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Memory and Loss

Memory and Loss



Recently, I lost a beloved son. I have struggled with grief and anger and somewhat made peace. I am writing to you because I heard a quotation, and I sense that this quotation has meaning for me. I was told that the Baal Shem Tov said, "In remembrance lies the secret of redemption." Could you help me to understand the connection between remembrance and redemption in Jewish tradition, and what the Baal Shem Tov is suggesting? Thanks.


My sincere condolences on the loss of your son. May we all be reunited again very soon in the world to come.

This statement has been widely attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, but I have yet to find the source. Whoever it is from, it is so profound and deep, I doubt anyone could express a glimmer of its meaning in a hundred emails. But perhaps one small point:

Each moment of life, taken on its own, is imprisoned. It is a fragment, and as such, orphaned from its meaning, like torn pages of a book scattered by the wind. Remembrance creates a gestalt, a wholeness in which all things are redeemed and complete.

The most essential example: You probably have noticed that all the mitzvahs we do are zecher l'yitsiat mitzraim — "a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt". It is this memory that takes a mitzvah out of its particular context and brings it into the larger drama of redemption. Each mitzvah becomes another step in an ongoing Exodus that began in Egypt and culminates in the final redemption.

To put it another way: On its own, a mitzvah is just another deed. In the context of remembrance, it becomes redemption: A redemption of that person at that moment. And another step in the redemption of the entire world.

In terms of your situation: The point at which your child was lost, I'm sure, was impossibly painful. Experiences such as these often become barriers between the present and the past. Memories are lost, or tainted by the pain.

But if you could see the entire picture as a whole, from beginning to end, the beauty would return to all of it.

I remember a music professor who would start the class by playing a chord on the piano and asking us to write down the notes. The chords became more and more sophisticated as the classes progressed: minor 9ths, suspended, augmented, 13ths... Then, one day, he played the ugliest chord imaginable — and this time, not only were we asked to write the notes, but to tell him the era and composer, as well.

All were convinced it was post-Wagnerian. Most placed it as "modern ugly — likely from the 1920s." Several suggested Arnold Schönberg.

Then he played us the entire piece. It was a fugue from J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavichord. The voices of the fugue fought their way into a crescendo of complexity culminating in the agonizing tension of that chord...and then smoothly resolved back into the sweetest baroque harmony.

Of course, it was all beautiful. But the most beautiful was that which we had first heard as the most ugly.

May we all merit to hear the entire symphony fulfilled, sooner than we can imagine.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA January 16, 2012

It sounds as if most who have lost Have only wonderful memories and deep grief. My parents are gone. Just totally gone. There was work undone... I needed to have my dad hug me and tell me he loved me. I needed my mom to tell me she was selfish and really did NOT want me to die from what she put me through. I needed those things, and now that will never happen. I feel as if I am still drifting. Sort of, like, empty inside. Reply

Devorah San Francisco, CA via January 15, 2012

in remembrance lies redemption Just a free-association, but it seems as we remember past actions, non-actions, and words as scenes from an internal movie replayed, we sometimes see for the first time aspects good and bad of these deeds. We remember, see vividly sometimes, and understand, which could bring comfort and joy, or sorrow and teshuva as "My sins are always before my eyes" (David haMelech). Perhaps this teshuva brings the redemption spoken of? Reply

Anonymous PORT HUENEME, C via September 16, 2010

love most of the comments were about parents

mine have been gone a LONG time

AND I AM SURE THAT THERE IS nothing more meaningful than the passing of your MOTHER. and father no matter how many years ago it was.... Reply

Anonymous channel islands, calif via September 16, 2010

death is death really so bad ? Reply

Michal April 4, 2010

Death of a loved one Dear Rabbi Freeman,
It is nearly 6 years, that my husband Eli was taken from me by G-d. I still have some very sad moments every day, and often I shed tears. Of course, theoretically I know what you wrote, but it is so good to be reminded, to read it again: the music which seemed to you the most ugly in the beginning turned out in the end the most beaufiful.
I hope it will be the case with me, when I too will be in the world to come.
Thanks for writing this. Reply

barbara grand rapids, mi via January 10, 2010

joel thank you so much. your thoughts have helped. i'm just trying to understand and i guess that takes time. i guess being told i will never connect with my parents again has really confused me. the tears i cry are not of their loss i know they're together, it's tears of understanding, guilt, and yes a sense of loss. Reply

Joel Glasser Largo, FL January 10, 2010

For Barbara-1st comment-2nd quote There was a man, who loved his daughter, and then she died, a tragic death. The man mourned for her, and cried for her daily. Then one night, he had a dream. All (of the angels/the souls of the departed who were good people) were going before G-d, and carrying lit candles- EXCEPT his daughter.Her candle was unlit. he cried out, "My darling daughter-all of the others have lit candles, why is your candle not lit?". And she replied, "it was lit, but your daily tears keep putting it out". The Rabbi explained, it is okay to mourn and cry for the loved ones who have gone to G-d; that is why Shiva; Yartzheit & Yizkor are part of our religion and heritage. But we must go on with living, although IN OUR HEART, WE MOURN THEM FOR ALL OF THE DAYS OF OUR LIVE.
That helped me. I hope it helps you.
Sorry if any typos or words misspelled. Reply

Joel Glasser Largo, FL January 10, 2010

Loss- a response to Barbara( 1st comment) First, my condolences. I to, lost my mother-it seems like yesterday, but was July 1994. My father passed away in 1976.

Two items that MIGHT help you. The first was told to me, many years ago, when my beloved grandfather passed away, just before Peasch, by a long time family friend.

He said, " All families are like a book. The parents are the covers. When the covers are gone, the book has changed; the pages become loose; sometimes they fall apart- the binding breaks. But, G-d in HIS WISDOM, which we do not understand, (as David wrote)_ There is a time to live, a time to die". (I believe it was David).

The other quote, was a from a Yom Kippur Yizkor service I attended in the 1980's, in a Reform or Conservative Shul. (I forget which). I will end another post with this story/quote Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman January 7, 2010

For Barbara Your parents are still there for you, but from a higher place. You connect with them by doing good things in their memory.

After loss of a parent, after 30 days of mourning, it's a time to make new connections and friendships. Volunteer, get involved in your shul. We mourn death only because life is so precious. Reply

Melech b'n Arieh Newtown, PA January 7, 2010

Music???? Tzvi, I had no idea you were a musician....
Beautiful analogy and an explanation... Reply

karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA January 7, 2010

Redemption as a positive connotation... What you are saying in your answer seems to be, boiled down, "May you find it in your heart to redeem the good memories and let go of the hurts and pains". Reply

Jorge Daza García-Blanes Colmenar Viejo, Spain January 7, 2010

Amazingly amazing... Shalom To All,

First of all, I'd like to join Rabbi Freeman on his condolences.

Regarding the answer I feel so many ways on how expressing my feelings (and being the best ones so really long on good stuff) that I'm fighting to find the shortest most meaningful one.

My guess at this point is something like: Rebbi Freeman, you rule. Those words were so sweet, smoothing, soothing, relaxing, hopeful and prophetic that I could use quite some much more time adding adjectives to those already mentioned.

Really amazingly ridiculously awesome.

Yours truly,
Moshe Reply

Tamar NY, NY January 7, 2010

Remembrance First and foremost, my heartfelt wishes of comfort for the questioner.

Secondly, I believe this quotation has more to do with us as a nation. If we do not forget who we once were and how we once were - a proud holy sovereign nation, with a king and a Temple - then we will forever be begging G-d to bring us to what we were in days of old - in other words we will pray to be redeemed. And this we do every day in our prayers and our rituals of remembrance. Reply

Sandra Lyn Serkess West Roxbury, MA January 7, 2010

the ugly chord That was so meaningful, Rabbi Freeman. Reply

Barbara Haywood via January 6, 2010

loss i just lost my mom last jan 27th. truthfully in her loss a loss of self was felt. i also don't feel like i'm at peace with being left alone by my parents. I'm hurt, ashamed and don't understand why family has done what they have? Reply

Anonymous Mimia Beach, Fl/USA January 3, 2010

Remembrance=Redemption When a Jewish person dies his familiy performs remembrance during the period of shiva, by reciting kaddish for 11 months, and with yearly yiskor remembrance services. This is done to assist the dead to a higher level of redemption.
These customs of remembrance of our deceased not only redeems the dead, but by perfomring the rembrances for we also elevate ourselves to asssit our redemption.
This has origin from the purcahse of the cave of machpalah for Sarah, onward to the request of yakov and yosef to be buriied in Israel where there redemption will be aided. Many rabbis have commented on the power of remembrance to bring redemption. Reply

Helga Hudspeth Leavenworth, WA June 22, 2004

Time "Each moment of life, taken on its own, is imprisoned. It is a fragment, and as such, orphaned from its meaning, like torn pages of a book scattered by the wind."

The first time I read this article, I stopped reading when I got to that part. I zeroed in on one word (orphaned), but without taking it out of context. I realized that no other word would do as well as this one. I admired it..... oh, did I ever admire it! I admired it so much that I "orphaned" it from the article I was reading.

And that's ok too. I can't always experience things in a profound way.

Since then I've read it a few more times. Sometimes I think of the example of the music professor. And I know that whatever "chord" I am at this moment, all of me is that "chord." Nothing that is me can be outside of it.

But a "chord" a person is after a loved one's death will not stay the same with the passage of time. Time does heal or at least make things more bearable. The passing of time can change how one remembers.

Both, "In remembrance lies the secret of redemption" and the explanation of it with "Dealing with Loss" have tremendous depth. I hope I understood at least a small part of it all. Reply