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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
May 16, 2007
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Zokheir means "remembers." But what does it mean to remember?

A clue comes from the comparison between two seemingly different notions that are expressed by the root of the word. The comparison is somewhat delicate, so please forgive me if I talk around certain notions rather than explicitly.

Zayin-khaf-resh (z-k-r) forms the root of "male" or "masculine" in addition to the root of "remember." The English word "remember" bears a prefix – re/member, giving the sense of putting something back together that had been taken apart. When you think about the process of remembering, it often resonates with that notion; something familiar causes us to gather shards of images and sensory ghosts from the vast warehouse of past experience and we assemble a re/collection of a moment from our personal history. In English, remembering is a mostly personal experience.

But the "male" aspect of remembering in Hebrew adds another dimension to the concept. The most obvious physical difference between men and women – that is, what we commonly think of in describing that difference – is sometimes called by the term at the English root of "remember." Central to the creative function of the male of the species is the ability to implant a seed that renews life. It is not just any life; in fact, it is the past, the deep personal history of the individual that widens to near-universal proportions as it is followed back in time.

Our contemporary understanding of science has given us the knowledge that men and women alike contribute to such new life. But when Hebrew was born, folk medicine viewed the man's contribution as seed and the woman's as nurture. It is that understanding that connects the two ideas in z-k-r.

The process of remembering is the blossoming of a seed. The seed itself is not new material; it is the repository of the past. Bymeans still a mystery to us, seeds, like memories, draw selectively on the rich pool of history before renewing in the present. When that memory is realized, it restores to life in vivid detail the dormant past in a way that is suddenly accessible in the present. In its new context, it also takes on new dimensions, and therefore a new uniqueness. Anyone who has looked into the face of a baby and seen past generations in the eyes, the nose, the curve of the mouth understands the idea.

To remember is to restore to life. When we say God is "zokheir chasdei avot," we mean not only can God recall the loving deeds of our ancestors, but also the God, in doing so, restores those loving deeds for us and to us in the context of our lives in this very moment.

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