Remembering to Forget?! Shabbat Zachor/Tetzaveh 5778

Remembering to Forget?!
Shabbat Zachor/Tetzaveh Exodus 27:20-30:10
Maftir (End Ki Tetze) Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarat Zachor: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

"I have a terrible memory. I never forget a thing." 
- Edith Konecky
Jewish American Novelist

This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor. שבת זכור Shabbat Zachor (Sabbath of Remembrance) is the Sabbath immediately preceding the holiday of Purim. We read Devarim 25:17-19 (the end of Parasha Ki Teizei), describing the attack on the Israelites by the nation of Amalek. The short reading paradoxically commands us to both remember and forget what Amalek did to us when they attacked us in the wilderness!

Primary Text:
Deuteronomy 25: 17-19
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt--how, undeterred by the fear of God... He [Amalek] surprised and attacked your weakest ones from the rear, when you were [all] fatigued and weary. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the Land that your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall eradicate the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget!

דברים פרק כה, יז-יט
(יז) זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם: (יח) אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִים: (יט) וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח:


These verses leave us scratching our head about what we are supposed to remember and what we are supposed to forget! How can we both remember Amalek while eradicating all memory of Amalek?! The last two words really emphasize the paradox by saying, "Don't forget!" (to forget!),

Rashi, our commentator par excellence, tries to make sense of these verses by presenting them as a prophecy for the future generations to remember, that is, to destroy Amalek (once you are settled in the Land). Rashi's interpretation brings the verse from 1 Samuel (the Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor) to support this interpretation.


Rashi-Deuteronomy Chapter 25:19
"You shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek"-"From Man to Woman; from infant to suckling; from Ox to Sheep," so that the name not be mentioned, even in reference to one of their animals,--(like saying) "this animal belonged to Amalek." 
רש"י דברים פרק כה פסוק יט 
(יט) תמחה את זכר עמלק - מאיש ועד אשה מעולל ועד יונק משור ועד שה (שמואל א' טו ג). שלא יהא שם עמלק נזכר אפילו על הבהמה, לומר בהמה זו משל עמלק היתה:

Samuel 1 Chapter 15 verses 2-3 [the source quoted by Rashi]
Thus saith the LORD of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he [Amalek] set himself against him [Israel] on the way, when he [Israel] came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

שמואל א פרק טו
(ב) כֹּה אָמַר ה' צְבָאוֹת פָּקַדְתִּי אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה עֲמָלֵק לְיִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר שָׂם לוֹ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בַּעֲלֹתוֹ מִמִּצְרָיִם:
(ג) עַתָּה לֵךְ וְהִכִּיתָה אֶת עֲמָלֵק וְהַחֲרַמְתֶּם אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְלֹא תַחְמֹל עָלָיו וְהֵמַתָּה מֵאִישׁ עַד  אִשָּׁה מֵעֹלֵל וְעַד יוֹנֵק מִשּׁוֹר וְעַד שֶׂה מִגָּמָל וְעַד חֲמוֹר: ס


Rashi may be resolving the contradiction between remembering and forgetting in these verses, but he leaves us with a very unsettling interpretation. He seems to be saying: remember to forget Amalek by destroying them (even those who might remind you of them, i.e. their animals) in the future, when you are settled in the Land. This commentary by Rashi is pretty hard to swallow. 

If we try to apply this dilemma to our own lives, we could ask: How can we personally relate to this type of aggressive and violent forgetting? Have we ever destroyed that which we don't want to remember pertaining to a painful memory?

We recall the mandatory "burning" of ex-pictures after a tough break up on any number of TV shows (including Friends). Of course in our own lives, we never try to completely eliminate our painful memories. (Do we?)

Before I return to our own struggles with personal memories, I want to take a moment to address the problem of collective memory.

Are the verses we read about Amalek to be understood as Rashi understands them? In his weekly Torah class, the Ramag (Rabbi Michael Graetz)
suggested a different approach. I paraphrase: we are charged to remember what Amalek did to us only if attacked again. If attacked, we are directed (but not commanded in the way of mitzvah) to exercise self-defense and kill them. If they do not attack us, then we are commanded to forget what they did to us (and move on)! Can you imagine letting go of a great wrong done to you? If you knew that you would not need to remember this painful memory, the injustice perpetrated against you -- could you forget/let it go? 

Letting Go and Moving On...

Rabbi Graetz interprets the text as a mitzvah (commandment) to remember Amalek perpetually, while the directive to wage war on Amalek is provisional and only applicable in case of self-defense (if we are attacked again as a sovereign nation in our own land). The Ramag further reads the words "eradicate the memory" in Exodus 25:19 as "erase our memory," press DELETE and forget about them! 

Isn't it easier to destroy every last shred of evidence and blot out our painful memories, just as we might have a bonfire burn every vestige of memory? Rashi and others may think so, but there are other ways to deal with our memories, especially our painful ones.

This brings me to the question some may be asking: Why do we read this portion on the Shabbat before Purim? What's the connection? There is a tradition from the Talmud that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, was a descendant of Amalek. So, on Purim, we remember to forget Amalek (Haman). How do we do this? Did you know that in Hilchot Megilla (the laws regarding the reading of the Megilla) there is a mitzvah to hear each and every word of the Megilla read aloud? How could that be? We spend so much energy blotting out the name of Haman with our raashanim/gragers (noise-makers)? Not only that, there is a mitzvah to drink until you can't tell the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai. 

עד שלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי!

How can we be commanded to forget while simultaneously being commanded to hear every word and REMEMBER?

The dance between remembering and forgetting in many ways epitomizes what makes our lives as individuals and as a group meaningful. Purim is a celebration of this paradox!

Memory is probably the greatest gift of all, but it can also be an impediment. That may be paradoxical, but it is so poignant and so true.

Many of us are in awe of people with excellent memories. We wish we could have their memory! If you did, what would you remember?  People's names, obscure facts, everything you have ever learned! It was fascinating to read an article about memory by an old Conservative Yeshivah friend, Ilana Kurshan, author of the acclaimed book If All the Seas Were Ink. Many  years ago, during a very difficult time in her life and going through a divorce, Ilana decided to study daf yomi, one page of Talmud every day according to the international program that reads the same page on the same day for seven and a half years until they complete the entire Talmud (see my Jewish Learning for a definition of Talmud:

I was fascinated to read an article Kurshan had written about the paradox of remembering and forgetting, for surely she would not want to lose an ounce of what all that Talmud that she had learned over many years, right? Not exactly.

We find this important idea in our tradition. I quote: “The rabbis of Babylonia would say in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak: It is for man’s own good that he learns Torah and forgets it, because if a person were to learn Torah and never forget it, he would study Torah for two or three years and then go back to his work, and he would never invest his whole life in Torah. However, since a person learns Torah and forgets it, he never desists or retreats from the study of Torah” (KR 1:13). 

In the early part of this discussion, it was easy to understand why we would want to forget that which is painful, which is why our People coined the phrase "Never Again" after the Holocaust. But it is harder to understand why we would want to forget the positive things we have learned! Our tradition teaches us that we are not meant to learn in order to remember every detail and reach a determined goal -- to fill our minds so completely that we get a headache! We are not a People of ends but of means, not of final objectives but of journeys, not of absolute answers but of questions, not of absolute binaries but of paradox; in short, we are a complicated bunch. 

Merav and I gave much thought to the names we chose for our two beautiful daughters; we called our younger daughter Maayan in order to bless her with this berachah, as written in Mishnah Avot about two different kinds of intelligence; one purely retentive (memory) and one more creative.

Mishnah Avot 2:8
  • Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanos (as a student) was [like a] plastered cistern which does not lose a single drop (of his learning)
  • And Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach, was like a like a spring overflowing...

משנה אבות ב:ח
רבי אליעזר בן הרקנוס, בור סוד שאינו מאבד טפה...
ורבי אלעזר בן ערך, כמעין המתגבר.

We wanted to bless our daughter to be more than a sponge for knowledge (memory vault of facts), but rather an ever-flowing fountain in which water evaporates and returns to its source. Memory is about being fully engaged in the present while maintaining a flexible and useful connection to the past. Holding on to what serves us while letting go of what is holding us back. Knowledge is one such example. It is not an end in itself, but a means to a conversation, a deepening of contact with the source, the soul and the mind. It is a step-stool to our own fountain of inner-wisdom and creativity. It is a blessing and sometimes a curse. Many of us hold on to too much, too many things, memories, regrets, pain... that is why they are referred to as "baggage." This Shabbat Zachor, this Purim -- lighten up! Have a scotch! Too much remembering can be tiring! That is why this holiday makes light of tough memories and encourages us to remember to forget!

If you missed the meaning of the Edith Konecky quote at the beginning: 

"I have a terrible memory. I never forget a thing." 
Sometimes the best kind of memory is one that is porous and flexible!

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach!

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