09/20/2012 05:55 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Our Memories as Tools of Teshuvah

Rosh Hashanah is traditionally referred to as the "Day of Remembrance" in reference to the hope that God will sustain our lives in the coming year out of recognition of our ancestors' merit, if not our own.

Yet Rosh Hashanah is also known as a central point in the very personal work of remembrance and reflection on the past year. The kind of remembrance most salient from my Rosh Hashanah experiences has not typically been in relation to God, but rather in relation to other people. I do not literally seek out God's remembrance of my ancestors for the sake of my own self-preservation, but rather sift through memories for the sake of my own self-improvement.

It is a monumental task. My internal dialogue often fairs something like this: "How many areas do I need to improve in? That many?! How can I possibly even start?" I recount countless events, and in them all of my missteps, mistakes, thoughtless words and the like. One year can seem like a lifetime when reviewing one's own actions in detail. Going from reflection to renewed action can seem overwhelming.

Yet this year, I came across a new tool in my repertoire of reflection for the sake of future action: memory itself. I have started reading a bit about the nature of memory and have come to understand that a growing number of researchers view memory as at least partially malleable in nature. As we recount events (and tell ourselves the stories of what happened), we may change the way in which we remember those same events. As one more popular redaction of this research put it, "the very act of remembering can change our memories."

If this hypothesis is correct, "with each repetition having the potential to alter" our memories, then our memories themselves might afford us the chance to make major changes in our lives. The stories we tell ourselves about our past impact our future. They shape the way we interpret new scenarios and interact with the individuals we will meet in the year ahead.

A tool for personal growth on Rosh Hashanah, therefore, might come in the form of re-framing the stories we recollect. No, it wasn't that I was frustrated with my friend; it was that I didn't find the right words to communicate with her. No, it wasn't that the work was too hard, it's that I didn't take enough time to figure out how to get it done efficiently. No, it wasn't that I felt upset at my loved one, it was that I was so overwhelmed with work that I couldn't be fully present for him.

The events themselves are the same. The stories we tell ourselves about them need not be. Reflecting on our past year -- and creating new, authentic and helpful frameworks for our experiences -- can help us engage in the process of self-improvement. In recollecting our past with intentionality and telling ourselves new, insightful stories about the events in our lives, we might more effectively engage with the difficult but fulfilling work of changing ourselves.

In returning -- in the process of teshuvah -- we can see the past anew and the future renewed.

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