Memory is a funny thing. When you work with data on your computer, it’s simple. If you have information you want to keep, you put it in a file in the computer’s memory and you can retrieve it whenever you want. If you forget where you filed it, there are simple tools for tracking it down. And when you’re done with it, you delete it.
Of course, human memory doesn’t work so neatly. Too often, we forget what we want to remember and remember what we would prefer to forget. Unfortunately, there’s no way to delete truly embarrassing moments. Sometimes we even have vivid memories of things that never happened.
The nature of human memory is one of the themes of this week’s parsha, which recounts how Joseph went from being an imprisoned slave to becoming viceroy of Egypt.
These events are actually set in motion at the end of last week’s parsha. Joseph is in prison because of a false accusation of attempted rape when Pharaoh gets angry at two of his courtiers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and sends them to prison. They both have disturbing dreams, which Joseph is able to interpret. After Joseph tells the chief cupbearer the good news that he will be restored to his position, Joseph asks him to mention him to Pharaoh so he might be released as well.
Yet the very last verse of the parsha says, “But the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph — he forgot him.” Apparently, the young foreign slave was so insignificant to the chief cupbearer that he immediately put him out of his mind. He didn’t remember him, even at the moment of his release. Once he was returned to his exalted position and the glamour of Pharaoh’s court, he forgot Joseph and everything that happened during his incarceration.
It is only when Pharaoh has disturbing dreams of his own two years later that the chief cupbearer suddenly remembers Joseph and his promise. It is only now that Joseph can help the cupbearer again — by earning him Pharaoh’s gratitude — that he is worth remembering.
Joseph, of course, is able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, telling him of the seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of famine, and he says, “Seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten.” Times will be so bad that even the memory of good times will be forgotten.
Events happen just as Joseph had predicted, and the Torah says, “The seven years of famine set in, just as Joseph had said.” It’s interesting that the Torah doesn’t make this statement in telling of the seven prosperous years. People took the good times for granted; it was only when famine struck that they remembered that Joseph had foretold what was to come.
Each of these verses points to the same phenomenon: People tend to see their current circumstances as permanent and forget what came before and what might come again later. In good times they forget the bad times, and in bad times they forget the good times. And that’s dangerous. Just think of all the people who came to believe that the value of their homes and 401(k)s could only go up.
There is a legend that King Solomon had a magic ring that contributed to his great wisdom. There are different versions of the legend that offer different descriptions of the ring’s magic. I like this one: Solomon’s ring had no magic powers. It was a simple gold ring with a brief inscription, but whenever Solomon looked at it, it made him wiser. What was inscribed on Solomon’s ring? Gam zeh ya’avor — this too shall pass.
And that’s worth remembering.