On Yamim Tovim, High Holidays, and Rosh Chodesh, we include the Ya’aleh ve-Yavo prayer in our davening. Commentators suggest that this prayer was added to the liturgy as a substitute for the Temple sacrifices once offered to Hashem during these hagim. In this prayer, evoking our ancestral virtues and Messianic aspirations, we ask God to have mercy upon us, save us, and treat us with compassion and lovingkindness.
But what exactly do we mean when we ask God, in Ya’aleh ve-Yavo, to “remember” us and our ancestors, Jerusalem, and Messiah? Why not simply pray for God to “save us,” “redeem us,” etc? What is added by evoking, in flourishing detail, the uprising of memories before God’s consciousness?
Earlier in the Musaf liturgy on Rosh Hashanah- a holiday also called Yom ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembering, where Ya’aleh ve-Yavo likely found its original home– we already affirm that “You Remember all that is forgotten…there is no forgetfulness before Your holy throne.” We do not worry, therefore, that God’s attention has simply drifted from us, that the saga of the Jewish people has slipped God’s mind.
Nor do we ask God to engage in pleasant reminiscence, to nostalgically flip through a photo album of God’s Jewish people and our deeds. Our pleas for God to “remember us” are charged with an urgency and intensity intimately related, it seems, to our very redemption. How can we look to Jewish tradition to understand this special power of zikaron, remembrance? How can a renewed appreciation of zikaron enhance our experience of Rosh Hashanah, a day when, during the Musaf service, the themes of remembrance, kingship, and the blowing of the shofar are intimately entwined?
In the Torah, the root z-kh-r appears 169 times, in various forms, to describe remembrances performed both by God and the Jewish people. “In the Bible,” writes Nahum Sarna, “‘remembering,’ particularly on the part of God, is not the retention or recollection of a mental image, but a focusing upon the object of memory that results in action.” When “God [remembers] Noah,” God ends the Flood (Genesist 8:1); when “God [remembers] Rachel,” God answers her prayers for children (Genesist 30:22); when Joseph cries “remember me,” he begs to be freed from imprisonment (Genesist 40:14). Here and elsewhere, “remembrance” fulfills a pre-existing covenant, intervenes to make some redemptive claim upon human events; not simply a digging up of lost memory, it is a focusing on readily accessible information, in order to take a form of action.
In the Talmud, we find that remembrance performed by the Jewish people, too, carries similar qualities. In Megillah 18a, the Sages conclude that to fulfill the mitzvah of remembering Amalek and the Purim story, it is not enough to remember “by heart,” but rather, the memory must be read from a book. Furthermore, it is not enough to read silently, to oneself; the commandment of Zakhor means one must read aloud, “with the mouth.” Remembrance, for the Rabbis, is not simply passive recall, held aloof in one’s memory as pleasant nostalgia or scientific contemplation. Remembrance is, rather, a decisive action, a positive imperative to transmit, to actualize by producing the written trace and the public proclamation.
We are bound together as a people when in our calendrical cycle, in our davening, in our ritual, we collectively cleave to memories of the events of our ancient past. These memories are not truly “past” for us; rather, they “arrive, reach, [are] seen” for us to experience anew in the present. We leave Egypt again and again, in new-old ways, each time we re-enact the Exodus at our Passover Seder. We bring “those days” into “this time” each time we light candles and say the berakhot during Hanukkah. Our ritual is concretized remembrance; our remembrance is anticipatory redemption.
We do not cleave to remembrance because the impulse to narrate, document, even relive our past carries, in itself, some intrinsic value. “If Herodotus was the father of history,” writes Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, “the fathers of meaning in history were the Jews” (italics added). While the Greeks celebrated history as a linear series of events, strung together by cause and effect- much like the commonsense view of history today- we Jews cleave to our shared mythic past as the arena where God’s emanations once intervened and, in our own time, may intervene again, may burst forth in a moment of divine rupture that, like the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, redeems and uplifts, inaugurates a new beginning.
On Rosh Hashanah, the haunting cry of the shofar calls upon us to remember our deeds of the past year, to parse through the details of our individual and collective histories, and in doing so, to begin to integrate our fractured selves, to rectify wrongs, to embark anew upon the process of teshuvah which culminates ten days later, on Yom Kippur. We do this by calling upon God, on the day of Rosh Hashanah, to remember us, to help us in this work of teshuvah by measuring our deeds from the perspective of eternity.
“In remembrance,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “lies the secret of redemption.” When we remind ourselves, in Ya’aleh ve-Yavo, that God remembered our ancestors, we strengthen our hope that so, too, God will remember us today. Through active, immersive, intimate remembrance, we charge our mythic memories with sparks of anticipation, which we hope may burst forth into a transformed present, a redeemed reality where God, as in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, is newly enthroned as King.
On the pshat level, Ya’aleh ve-Yavo is about God’s remembrance, not our own. However, several commentaries complicate this simple distinction. According to the Vilna Gaon, at the beginning of Ya’aleh ve-Yavo, when we evoke, in flourishing detail, the step-by-step process of God’s remembrance- “may memories rise, arrive,” etc.- we are in fact praying for our own tefillah to ascend through the seven levels of shamayim, until we reach the very source of teshuvah, emanating from the highest spiritual realms.
In either case, these commentaries suggest that when we pray in Ya’aleh ve-Yavo for God’s memories to ascend to God’s attention, we are to visualize our own devotion, ascending from the altars of our lips to Hashem. The key here again is remembrance as action– we do not await passively, begging for the divine remembrance of which we speak to unfold in a process beyond our control. Rather, we compel God to remember, as it were, through the fervency of our davening, the intention of our sacrifice, the blowing of our shofar. Again, we hope that our remembrance arises before God not for its own sake, but rather, we pray quite literally that “our memory may be a blessing”- that the remembrances God preserves of us may bestow goodness and peace upon our lives.
With some poetic license, we may imagine that this prayer for God’s remembrance functions, in fact, as a performative metaphor for our own remembrance. Perhaps, in praying for God to remember Jerusalem, our ancestors, and the Messiah, we in fact bind these very remembrances closer upon our own hearts. Actualizing the Mishnah’s imperative to “make His will into your will, so that He will perform your will like His will” (Pirkei Avot 2:4), we pray, in Ya’aleh ve-Yavo, for our own remembrance to redeem us, to strengthen us and light the way forward, to inspire us, like the blowing of the shofar, towards a new beginning. When we pray on Rosh Hashanah for God to remember us, we are praying simultaneously for our own work of teshuvah to be meaningful, for our own careful examination of past deeds and rectification of misdeeds to inspire God to write us anew in the Book of Life on Yom Kippur.
It may be said that our calendar is structured as a scaffolding for remembrance, its various holidays affixed at specific points along the yearly cycle to concretize, in our collective consciousness, specific memory-worlds from our mythic past. In Temple times, the entire people would gather in Jerusalem during these holidays, to offer prayer and sacrifice. Now, bereft of a Temple, we pray Ya’aleh ve-Yavo so that our lips may become the altar, and our remembrance the sacrifice. On Rosh Hashanah, we gather as an entire people in prayer, immersed in the work of teshuvah, memories in tow, and standing before Hashem, we lay bare the churning gears of our remembrance- “may memories rise, arrive, reach,” etc.- and pray that the emancipatory potential, brimming in our own past, may flower forth into redemption, into the inauguration of God’s Kingship, the new beginning announced in the earth-shattering cry of the shofar.
The Hatam Sofer observes that in Ya’aleh ve-Yavo, we evoke remembrances of the past- our forefathers- the present- Jerusalem, suspended between destruction and rebirth- and the future- Messiah. Rabbi Yonoson Roodyn observes that we are bound as Jews, individually and collectively, by these three temporal peoplehood markers- we each have a link to the spiritual potential of the Avot, a connection to Jerusalem, a stake in the final redemption of Messiah.
Evoking these remembrances, Ya’aleh ve-Yavo merges and concentrates past, present, and future- but not in the undifferentiated embrace of an “eternal Now.” Rather, it is as if, in the act of davening, our remembrance dwells in exile between Time and its Other, singled out and commanded by a past which remains, a present which is already a trace of itself, a future which is always to-come.
In Ya’aleh ve-Yavo we cry to God, “Leave us traces! Raise the sparks of our remembrance; gather past, present, and future and, in a single gesture, blast history itself open; redeem us, and redeem our ancestors, all together, speedily, at this very moment!” And we cry to ourselves, “may we remember! May we cling to traces! May our remembrance not remain bound to the earth, within linear, causal time; may its fierceness break the bonds of time itself, and gather us and our ancestors together, at once, into liberation!”
“As flowers turn toward the sun,” wrote Jewish Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, “so, by dint of a secret heliotropism, the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history.” Ken yehi ratzon!
 Rashi on Shabbat 24a says that Ya’aleh ve-Yavo is to request mercy on Israel and Jerusalem, to return the Temple service to its place, and to be able to do the sacrifices of the day. The prayer is said on days where there are extra sacrifices that are especially missed: Biblical Holidays, Rosh Hodesh and Hol ha-Moed.
 Steven C. Reif, Judaism and Hebrew Prayer: New Perspectives on Jewish Liturgical History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 189.
 Macy Nulman, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer: the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rites (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc, 1993), 362
 Roodyn, ibid.