Shabbat Zachor

A few texts on the theme of Shabbat Zachor

Shabbat Zachor is the sabbath preceding the festival of Purim on which the Torah reading often concludes with the following:

17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19 Therefore, when the Eternal One your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal One your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Deuteronomy 25:17-19

Let’s start with this by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner for the American URJ Ten Minutes of Torah:

The way to “remember” him, “blot out his memory” and then “forget” him is by realizing that we all have the capacity to be Amalek. And those who remember this may just be the only ones who have a “fighting” chance at breaking free of it and thereby freeing their own hostages within.

Or even more subversive – not only might we all be Amalek, Amalek could be us – part of a post by Rabbi Robert Scheinberg:

Our tradition recognized the terrifying potential of a literal interpretation of the Amalek commandment. Much traditional Jewish literature sees the commandment against Amalek not as a commandment to destroy an evil nation, but as a commandment to destroy evil. For example, Reb Simha Bunim of Pzhisha, a Hasidic rabbi of the early 19th century, noted that the commandment to destroy Amalek is phrased in the singular, rather than in the plural. It is not a commandment to one nation to destroy another nation, but rather a commandment to each individual to search and destroy the Amalekite tendencies within ourselves.

One passage in the Talmud protests against the idea that the Amalekite people are irredeemable. We read, “Descendants of Haman were students and teachers of Torah in the academies of Bnei Brak in the land of Israel.” (BT Sanhedrin 96b). The Jewish people are better off for the existence of these descendants of the Amalekites, because they were among the builders of our rabbinic tradition. If righteous people, students and teachers can descend from the Amalekites, then no nation can be irredeemably evil.

Thinking more about remembrance and forgetting here is a reflection I made for Holocaust Memorial Day in an article in the JC:

The wounds will never heal, though the pain of their existence may be dulled. We are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek, whose attack on the Israelites moments after they escaped slavery and crossed the Sea of Reeds is described in the Torah…

Perhaps what this enigmatic command tells us is that the memory of Amalek can be deep-seated and almost invisible, forgotten in a sense. By blotting it out, I think that it is to be deliberately obscured in favour of a different way of self-understanding.

We must not allow victimhood to dominate our sense of identity: in blotting out, we promise never to forget and never to be defined by powerlessness and oppression. We are a people who believe in redemption and who believe in hope. Never wildly optimistic, but always unimaginably forward-looking to a future that will be better. That is what it means to be a Jew.

And here with Yehuda Amichai from his poems Open Closed Open, I finish this brief excursus on Amalek, remembrance and forgetting. A wonderfully challenging poem, as enigmatic (or more) as Deuteronomy itself (translation by Chana Bloch):

ומי יזכור? ובמה משמרים זכרון? במה משמרים בכלל בעולם,

משמרים במלח ובסוכר, בחום גבוה ובהקפאה עמוקה

באטימה מחלטת, ביבוש ובחניטה

אבל שימור הזכרון הטוב ביותר הוא

לשמרו בתוך השכחה שאף זכירה אחת

לא תוכל לעולם לחדר לתוכה ולהפריע את מנוחת הנצח של הזכרון.

And who will remember? And what do you use to preserve memory? How do you preserve anything in this world?You preserve it with salt and with sugar, high heat and deep-freeze,

vacuum sealers, dehydrators, mummifiers.

But the best way to preserve memory

is to conserve it inside forgetting so not even a single act of remembering

will seep in and disturb memory’s eternal rest.

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