Thursday, Apr 11, 2024

Forgotten, But Not Gone  


The assessment sounds like it was tailored for an elderly gentleman whose faculties are fading with the sunset. The report does not castigate the patient.

He is a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.” The description of his memory includes words like “hazy,” “fuzzy,” “faulty,” “poor” and having “significant limitations.”

In addition, the assessors discuss their interactions with this elderly gentleman: “His conversations are often painfully slow, as he struggles to remember events and straining at times to read and relay his own notebook entries.”

Unfortunately, these assessments were not made about an 81-year-old living in an assisted living facility. They were made about the man who has the ability to push the button to initiate a nuclear war – namely, the president of the United States. We certainly hope that he does not confuse that button with the doorbell to his garage.

Recently, Mr. Biden’s constant confusion in misappropriating titles and forgetting the names of current world leaders and the dates of central events in his personal and political life have raised the eyebrows of his supporters and the ire of his adversaries. During interviews from Justice Department agents who were querying him about his illegal retention of classified documents, he was befuddled by simple questions. He could not remember when his son Beau died or when he served as vice president. In recent press conferences, he chided the president of Mexico, asserting that, initially, the president of Mexico, Sisi, did not want to open up the gate to humanitarian material to get into Gaza.

It is a good thing that he mentioned the name Sisi, a reference (hopefully) to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi. Otherwise, by the context of his comments, we actually could have thought that he was referring to the president of Mexico. The president proudly declared, “I talked to him. I convinced him to open the gate.” Indeed, I do think he called the president of Mexico and told him to open that gate. After all, how else did more than 2 million illegals come here from Mexico?

Having once had an important interaction with then Senator Biden back in 1995, I did find him to be well-meaning. In all seriousness, I do wonder often about misspeaks, flubs and forgetfulness in the context of real decision-making. I am not a psychologist or neurologist, and I don’t want to weigh in on whether those factors alone should disqualify someone from remaining president, especially when there are, in my opinion, greater factors to weigh.

I don’t think that anyone would point to Richard Nixon’s memory or lack thereof as a reason for his incapability to remain president. A while before his resignation, he was greeted by a large group of well-wishers after landing in an airport far from Washington, DC.

A little girl wanted to ask him about the welfare of the most famous firefighting mascot, which was then residing at the Washington Zoo: Smokey the Bear. As he was shaking hands with the crowd, the girl shouted to him, “How is Smokey the Bear?” Nixon smiled at the girl and turned away, but she kept waving and repeating her question.

He did not understand what she meant, so he sought the support of an aid, Special Assistant to the President Steve Bull. As the president leaned over, Bull whispered, “Smokey the Bear, in the Washington National Zoo.”

Now that he was informed, Nixon strode over to the little girl, shook her hand, and asked, “How do you do, Miss Bear?”

It happens.

Of course, the problem is when it happens more often than not. What is also troubling is the vehement denial or rejections of the facts that older people can lose their memory or at least mix up important details of critical events. The president, when challenged about his lapses, broke into a Trump-like tirade against the reporter who asked him the question.

I am not a defender of the president and I don’t want to use this forum to proclaim that memory gaffes and lapses are disqualifying factors. Even brilliant scientists such as Einstein were known to be forgetful, even befuddled, doing mundane tasks. The story they tell about him is that when he was once on a train and the conductor was collecting tickets, Professor Einstein could not find his ticket. He searched through all of his pockets, then looked in his briefcase, but the missing ticket was nowhere to be found.

Luckily, the conductor recognized the famous scientist and assured him, “Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. I’m sure you bought a ticket. It is fine.”

As the conductor went to the next passengers and continued down the aisle, he looked back. The professor was on his hands and knees looking underneath his seat for the missing ticket.

The conductor went back and reassured him, “Dr. Einstein, don’t worry. I know who you are… You don’t need a ticket. I’m sure you bought one.”

According to the story, Einstein reportedly replied, “Young man, I, too, know who I am. But without my ticket, I do not know where I’m going.”

I am sure that myriad mesholim can be gleaned from it. For me, it just goes to show that memory may not always be directly correlated with intellect.

I am now tending to walk in the path of my father, who often would turn to the menahel of his yeshiva, Rav Chanina Herzberg, before he would give a bar mitzvah drosha and ask, “Vee heist der yingele?”

Memory loss is painful and scary, and I am not here to discuss my lapses, but I have had them, on occasion, and it has triggered a certain fear. It was not the fear that I could no longer qualify for president. That certainly seems in reach despite any type of disorder. Simply, the execution of my job and the ability to learn require so much memorization. With our community growing day by day by leaps and bounds, and meeting so many new faces, either as parents, talmidim, friends, donors or just community members, it does become difficult to remember every name and tie it intrinsically to each face.

I am sure that many of us who deal with aging see the frustration of memory lapses and the adamant denial that comes with it. So when I hear the president misappropriate names and places, I, for one, empathize with that particular aspect of his numerous missteps.

Of course, stories are told and we all know of the remarkable memories of gedolei Yisroel, who, years later, were able to continue conversations in learning or in more mundane matters that were interrupted by an emergency. But we all know that even gedolei Yisroel are human, and the words “lo kahasa eino – his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated” were relegated to the miraculous enduring physicality of Moshe Rabbeinu. Many poskim stopped answering questions in halacha after they realized that they may have forgotten a Shach tucked away somewhere in Yoreh Deah.

One of the most poignant moments that I ever had was when my zaide was past ninety years old. He was relating a shtickel Torah to me in which there was a reference to a posuk in Divrei Hayomim. He began quoting the posuk and then faltered. As he searched his memory, I noticed a tear roll down his face. I will never forget the sadness and emotion with which he said the following words: “Shtelzich fohr az ich fargess ah posuk in Divrei Hayomim – I can’t imagine that I forgot a posuk in Divrei Hayomim.”

Please don’t ask me what the devar Torah was about. I forgot.



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