Master of Memory

Dec 23rd, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Portion of the Week
I’ve been reading Joshua Foer”s “Moonwalking with Einstein,” a fabulous tale of a journey into the world of memory championships, and remembering all sorts of different tools I’ve tried over the years to improve my memory.  I always wanted to have my grandfather zt”l’s memory.

Legend says that Simonides of Ceos was the inventor of the method of loci where large amounts of data can be remembered in order by placing images that represent the data into mental locations or journeys.

As a child, I hadn’t heard of Simonides, but I was raised with Simanim, mnemonics, to memorize all that I studied. One method was to take boring material (quite rare in Torah) and associate it with a more exciting memory.

Late Motza’ei Shabbat in Yeshiva, the students would somehow get into the kitchen and make french fries. They loved using this huge machine which would peel the potatoes and spit them out in pieces shaped perfectly for fries. I wanted to try a memory segula found in an old book consisting of ginger and pepper fried in honey to eat twice a day every day for six weeks to attain a photographic memory. I used my small savings to buy a frying pan and ingredients, and while everyone was playing with the potato machine and making fries, I was frying the ginger and pepper in honey. The frying pan, for some odd reason, didn’t survive my cooking or whatever you want to call my efforts. I lasted slightly longer than the pan; three days of intense stomach aches. (I found the segula, and surprisingly, it doesn’t say anything about frying. I forgot why I chose that method of cooking).

Nothing I’ve tried has been as effective as Joseph who was not only a master of memory himself, but was a superb Memory Creator. Not only did he keep his memories in the forefront of his mind, as in, “Joseph recalled the dreams that he dreamed about them (the brothers) [Genesis 42:9],” he did whatever he could to help them remember all the important events of their lives, and then some.

Note: I would have described Joseph’s dreams as being about him, and yet this verse says that the dreams were about the brothers! This would change our understanding of why Joseph shared his dreams with his brothers, even when he knew how much they were upset by the dreams. This would also explain why the brothers were so bothered by Joseph’s dreams: They could live with a younger brother who dreamed of being in charge; they could not bear this little kid having visions of what they would have to do.They assumed that Joseph’s visions of them bowing indicated their taking a subservient role. Joseph begins to challenge them to recreate their memories of their self-perceptions as reflected in their response to his dreams:

“Now Joseph, he was the viceroy over the land, he was the provider to all the people of the land. Joseph’s brothers came and bowed to him, faces to the ground (Verse 6).”

The Midrash and commentaries (Ramban) wonder how the brothers got directly to the viceroy. Thousands of people were coming for food, and Joseph surely had hundreds of people working for him all over Egypt. Why did all the brothers go to one distribution center? Would it not have made more sense for them to spread out and purchase more of the limited supply of grain? Did they not realize that appearing together would spark suspicion?

The brothers would only go directly to the top because of who they were. Here they were, bowing to the viceroy of Egypt, their faces too the ground, and still connected to their dignity as the Children of Israel. Bowing, yes. Subservient, not. They were beginning to realize that Joseph’s dreams were not as threatening as they had believed.

Joseph successfully began his process of reframing their memories.

To be continued.

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