For many years, my thoughts were often focused on the phenomenon of memory. The way I saw it, memory reigned sovereign in the metaphysical realm. It helped me to solve all of my existential probings.

Unlike the Just — who are the true repository of memory, who speak in detours only because people's vessels are not apt to receive that intelligence all at once — I am a broken vessel, who must resort to circuitousness to find my own way around. My memory is that of an archaeologist by comparison. Each fragment that I unearth calls for the next, until I finally face the complete form. It is, I have to admit, a second-rate approach for recovering lost intelligence. Nevertheless, it is a reliable one, in so far as it presents all the facts, all the pieces, in which case I am assured that the memory has been captured.

But enough preamble. Let us begin to gather the pieces.

Let's look at the Europe of two or three centuries ago, when the Jewish communities were devastated by poverty and by the constant fear of persecution. Worse still was the mood of distrust, the shattered hopes that had followed in the wake of a chain of false messiahs. It is easy to understand how, under such circumstances, morale could sink so low. The scholars, the elite who held the light of tradition, remained isolated from the common folk, and were therefore unable to convey to them the joy contained within those ancient teachings which they had been entrusted to preserve.

Then came the master, the holy Baal Shem Tov, to irrigate abandoned fields. He proceeded to transmit to common folk, in their own terms, what had been previously reserved for the select few. His rationale was clear: the same Father in heaven who gives clever people the capacity to understand, also creates the feeble mind, and grants it no less right to share in the divine feast. And upon bringing to light the challenge, the Baal Shem Tov also unearthed the key: that special language by means of which the poor are allotted their spiritual portion, undefiled and unabridged.

The renaissance sparked by the Baal Shem Tov was fired by twin concerns. One, of course, was his love for his people. Had that been all, he might have thought it enough to spoon-feed the needy with the wealth of his own wisdom. But beyond that, he saw how heaven itself was suffering from excess holiness — or rather from our failure to raise up vessels into which the holy could descend. With small words attuned to small people, for the sake of heaven as well as man, he let the job be done.

When the holy was finally allowed to penetrate to the depths where it belongs, its effect on the demeanor of those it touched was extraordinary. Housed in such modest surroundings, heaven was made a neighborhood. It became a daily occurrence for simple folk to ascend there on ladders of wood, or to arrive through open doors from adjacent rooms. No high-powered lens was required to gaze into the infinite. Simple people were ideal chariots to transport the sacred, with never a self-conscious thought, for they did not suffer from the vanity with which the gifted are apt to be plagued.

They could travel in an instant through time to Sinai, and fall on their faces, trembling as if they had just received the Law. Just yesterday they were slaves to Pharaoh; today they were free. The messiah was not a fable for these good people, or a possible dream of times to come; for them, redemption was now. Cunning minds might contend that they were merely naive. I would say, rather, that they bore the mark of wisdom: a good memory of the future, as well as of the past. To bind past events with those that must inevitably come, to fuse the two extremes of time and bring them to peace with the present, is to partake of the feast prepared by the Baal Shem Tov, the saintly teacher of the rich and the poor, who revealed that memory is redemption.

There is no limit to what memory can achieve. It is the source, the common font which, when tapped, can resolve all contradictions, and remind all people that they are at once equal and unique. Bound to our past, assured of our future, we are freed to become ourselves. One who remembers his origin in dust and ashes, and his end as a nest for worms, becomes humble enough to be crowned a king. Memory is the medium of a settled mind. It is the best medicine, too; for no matter who or what the agent of healing may be, real cure is effected by the strength that is found within. It is a process of reawakening to the model of health that is stored within our genes.

But how soon memory slips away, when we are hit with some passing misfortune. One might be snubbed inadvertently by a tactless friend, and in a moment of emotional upset lose sight of all the good that has accrued from a lifelong friendship. Or a son might forget all the care his parents gave him, after a castigation or a clash. He bears the hurt in his heart, and survives by assuming a posture of indifference while, unknown to him, the hurt turns to hatred and rage. Years pass, and he roams, rootless and estranged. Even in the midst of his successes, he is susceptible to depression and disease. Trauma taints his vision, and he cannot see the whole. He will find correctives that achieve half the cure, will move from contrivance to contrivance, all futile, unless he turns a blind eye to his grievances, so truly as to forget all insults, and takes the high road.

That, if I may be so bold, is the prerequisite phase of memory at its best: to forget the bad and remember the good.