I came across this very sweet musing by Kazuo Ishiguro in the Wall Street Journal on shabbos. He reflects on the haunting chorus of Leonard Cohen’s 1988 song, I Can’t Forget: “I can’t forget but I don’t remember what.” Ishiguro refers to his own connection to his boyhood Japan, having left for London with his parents when he was five years old, “I’ve always felt there was something back there that I had to remember, something important. It’s not a specific fact or memory that would help me in any practical sense, just the notion that I must not forget the world where I came from and my state of being. This sense, that there’s something critical I must not forget, resonates with me. My early childhood is part of my history and who I am, but I’m not sure what exactly I must remember. I often fear that this part of my past is slipping away.”
It seems to me that this type of longing, an inchoate sense that something is missing is the religious attitude that we should develop, an attitude that genuinely feels that something is missing and senses a need for development and growth. This attitude was captured beautifully in a sicha given by Rav Shagar zt”l in Yeshivat Hakotel in 5742, published in ״פניך אבקש״. HIs topic was sefirat haomer.
האדם מצוי במצב אומלל- חציו בהמה וחציו אדם. השעורים, מאכל הבהמה, מייצגות את הרגשת החיסרון האנושי. האדם נתון בחומר, אין בו את הבהירות הרוחנית, אבל דווקא המצוקה הזאת היא שנותנת לו הדחף לעבודת ה׳, להתקרבות מחודשת לקב״ה…״
Rav Shagar explains that man finds himself torn between his physical existence and a spiritual longing. Precisely that distress is what creates a dynamic for service of God and a renewed approach toward the Almighty. I can’t forget, but I don’t remember what. Chasing that elusive memory is part of religious development.
Last week, a student who struggles with belief told me that even though he doesn’t believe he can’t escape the deep feeling that there must be something more to existence than propagation of the species. He can’t forget, but he doesn’t remember what.
Here’s Leonard Cohen singing the song live in 2012:
Here’s a cover by the Pixies:
While we’re looking at thought provoking lines of Leonard Cohen, here’s his riff on ונתנה תוקף, performed on Saturday Night Live. “And Who, may I say is calling?” In that one brilliant line he turned the entire tefilla on its head- not just a meditation on man’s life but a demand to understand God!