In the richer sections of Ropshitz, the town in which Reb Naftali was the rebbe, it was common for householders to hire night watchmen to guard their property. One evening, the rebbe went for a walk in the woods and returned to town through the neighborhood of the well-to-do. A watchman saw him coming through the forest and called for him to halt.
“I am sorry, Rebbe, I did not recognize you in the dark,” the guard said as the rebbe drew closer to him under a gaslight.
The rebbe smiled and asked him, “For whom do you work?”
The watchman told him. Then he asked the rebbe the same question: “And for whom are you working this evening, Rebbe?”
The question hit Reb Naftali like a fist in his stomach. He stepped back a pace or two and then stammered, “I am not working for anyone at the moment.”
The rebbe then began to pace back and forth under the gaslight. Suddenly he stopped, turned to the watchman, and said, “I would like to hire you.”
“Me?” the man said. “I am a watchman. I know nothing of rebbes and their matters. I protect what matters to my master. What could I possibly do for you?”
“The very same,” Reb Naftali said. “What matters to me is my soul, and to protect it I must work for God.”
“But what would my job be?”
“To remind me,” the rebbe said.
The word “remember” appears at least 125 times in the Hebrew Bible. This is what the Jewish philosopher and biblical scholar and translator Martin Buber calls a key word: a word whose frequent repetition is deliberate and intended to point us toward some important truth.
What does it mean to remember? You might think that the emphasis on remembering implies an almost obsessive concern with the past. Torah is calling us to live in the past, to conform to the past, to uphold the old as superior to the new. But where does remembering happen? Can you remember the past in the past? Of course not; all remembering takes place in the present. You cannot live in the past. You can live only in the present. You can, however, use the past as a veneer, an overlay that makes the present look like the past. You can repeat old patterns of thought and action to give yourself a sense of continuity with the past. Indeed, this is part and parcel of normative religion: to conform to the past in the present.
But this is not the only use of “remember.” Reb Naftali was not seeking to remember the past but to be reminded of the present. He desired someone to call him back to this very moment and ask: For whom are you working? For yourself or for God?
The contemporary mystic and activist Andrew Harvey suggests you carry a small icon in your pocket to remember to return to the holy work of this moment. Torah suggests that you wear fringes on the corners of your garments to remind yourself of God and godliness (Numbers 15:38). The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that you use the ringing of a bell or telephone as a call to return to the present. Reb Naftali hired a watchman. What will you do?