I don’t know what the breakpoint is, but at a certain age, as soon as you say, “I can’t believe I forgot __________________________” [fill in the blank], people will spontaneously groan along with you and share their own memory problems. What we forget plagues us. Where I put the keys, where I put my passport [I thought you had it], the name of the book I read last week, why I’m standing in front of the refrigerator, what it was I wanted to google… It’s a veritable cavalcade of frustration and stress.
Then there are things we are sworn to remember. Significant family dates: birthdays and anniversaries most of all. Along with the family dates are yahrzeit observances. Then there are holidays, both secular and Jewish. There are also concepts and teachings: Never Again, Remember the Alamo, the Pledge of Allegiance, and so forth.
We do our best at the remembering and struggle valiantly against the forgetting. I don’t want to say that it’s a losing battle though at times it sure feels that way. The science does not deliver much in the way of good news on that front.
So this week’s special Torah portion makes for a perplexing challenge. This is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of remembering. It is observed every year one month before Purim. We read the following text taken out of the usual order in the weekly Torah cycle. But what exactly are we supposed to remember?
Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! Deuteronomy 25:17-19.
Why read this selection of Torah a month before Purim? Of course, the real answer is that we don’t know. But we can surmise that a group of rabbis decided that the darker aspects of Purim, namely that there were – and are people who want to destroy us — needs to be considered along with costume selections. In other words, as my father-in-law would say, “This is a serious business.” Haman is considered to be related to Amalek, so to conflate the characters feels right. Indeed, to this day, people say that Hitler and Stalin and a variety of other bad guys are all related to Amalek.
Remembering what the bad guys have done to us is an essential aspect of preserving our history. Amalek is the quintessential bad guy, the ruthless murderer who kills without remorse, without pause. And yet, the text says to remember Amalek even as we blot out his name. I read this as the text saying, “Remember! And forget!”
This cryptic, almost contradictory message does make some sense. It reminds me of a quote from the great Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, who said, “After the Holocaust we are like Lot’s wife. We keep running forward even as we keep looking back.” Of course blot out Amalek’s name. Of course blot out Hitler and his swastikas and his goose steps and the stiff-arm salute. Of course blot out Haman’s iniquities and his genocidal plan. Why carry around such pain and horror?
But of course, you can’t blot it out if you don’t know what “it” is. To be a Jew in the postmodern world is to be a person who carries around so many memories that need to be blotted out. The proclamation to remember engages us in understanding the deeper context of our survival. As Captain Jack Miller (Tom Hanks) draws his last breath, he tells Private Ryan (Matt Damon), “Earn this.”
The ultimate Jewish imperative is to tell the story, not to rehash the past, but to point emphatically to the future. Remember woes and appreciate what you have now and what your progeny may yet accomplish. Amalek is long gone, but the lessons learned as we struggled remain. Earn this.
* “why I’m standing in front of the refrigerator?” Looking for a Diet Coke, of course. 😉