The national election created in me a deep sense that I wanted to meet and speak with more of my neighbors. In my busy-ness, it’s easy to walk past the community of the every-day. That seems wrong to me now.
Recently I went into a liquor store (vodka is also part of the post-election world). When I walked in, the woman who was keeping the store looked at my kippah and greeted me with, shalom! I responded, shalom, shalom!
When I brought my purchase to her register, I noticed her name emblazoned on her orange uniform shirt: Lethia. What an unusual name! I said. How do you pronounce it? Lay-theey-ah, she replied. Said I, Your name makes my entire mouth work: tongue to teeth for the l, open for the ay, tongue to teeth—with breath behind it—for th, jaw tightened for eey, then, loosening and opening to roll out the ah! She laughed and said her name, feeling its shape and sounds.
Where did your name come from? I asked. From my great-grandma, she said. Great-grandma named me after one of her sisters. She lived her whole life in Roanoke Rapids, NC. That’s where I grew up.
What does your name mean? I asked. I don’t know, she said. I’ve been meaning to look it up, but I haven’t. My name comes from great-grandma, and I think about that every day.
When I returned to my car, I searched the internet for the name, Lethia. I found it, got out of my car, and went back inside the store. Lethia looked concerned when she saw me. Is everything alright? Yes. I just learned something about your name. Lethia is a Greek name, and it means Forgetful. Oh, no! she said, frowning.
But there is a bigger story of your name that fits you, I said. Do you remember the Bible story of Joseph in Egypt? She smiled: Great-grandma used to tell me Bible stories a lot when she was raising me.
Here’s a Bible story that will soon be read in the Synagogue: Joseph had a son whom he named Menassah, from the Hebrew word that means forget. When Joseph named his son, he said: God has made me forget—nashani—my troubles and my father’s house (Genesis 41:51). Of course, every time Joseph spoke his son’s name, he couldn’t help but remember his father and the place where he was raised up.
When you say your name, I continued, it sounds to the ear and feels to the tongue and teeth like your great-grandma naming you and calling you in Roanoke Rapids. The name that means forgetful is its own reminder. As long as you know your name, you’ll never forget.
Thank you, she said, while touching her fingers to her name, emblazoned over her heart.
With Joseph’s story in mind, I went home and consulted the ancient Greek Torah translation, the Septuagint. Translation into Greek stripped away the Hebrew pun that joins the Hebrew name Menasheh and the verb nashani, he caused me to forget. But, I found Lethia’s name in the verb at the heart of the story in parashat Mikketz. God has made me forget? Just the opposite!
This story is reminiscent of the text of Torah which requires us to “blot out the memory of Amalek.” Well, how can we possibly do that when we read those verses from Torah twice per year (once in the regular rotation of Torah reading, and secondly, for the Maftir reading on Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim)? We are really NOT supposed to forget about Amalek and the evils of his descendants and followers. That’s why we call it Shabbat Zachor…the Sabbath of Remembrance) not the Sabbath of Forgetting or Blotting out.
Thank you so much, Rabbi Sager, for lifting the sparks for this person, who is probably unnoticed. You gave her so much respect. She will never forget YOU!
A sweet story about a liquor store cashier who dispenses beverages that soften the hard edges of memory and whose name at once conjures up images of forgetting and remembering — call to mind the poem “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins from the collection Questions about Angels.. Her name points to stanza 6 which requires the introduction of stanza 5 as follows:
Whatever you are struggling to remember
it is not on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L, as far as you can recall,
well on your way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
I’m reading this meditation through the lens of dementia. I’d love to post it on my blog. Folks need to see the uses in forgetting. Or should I say, we need to remember to forget.
Forget and remember, remember and forget. Memory zacor in Hebrew has the root “to etch.” This story will be etched in my memory and surely on Lethia’s lips for a long time.