The Importance of Remembering
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Judaism is a religious tradition built on the base of memory. In his great work on the subject, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, the historian Yosef Haim Yerushalmi notes that the Hebrew word for remember, zachor, is repeated nearly 200 times in the Hebrew Bible! Israel is commanded to remember the Shabbat, the covenant with God, the exodus from Egypt, etc. We have constant exhortations in the Torah to remember different historical events. As Yerushalmi suggests, we can say that that the ability to remember has been central to the survival of the Jews in the diaspora over thousands of years. How else can we explain the continuity of the Jewish people through times of migration, persecution, destruction, renewal, and adaptation to new social, economic and religious realities?
On this Sabbath before Purim — called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of remembrance — we read the weekly section, Tetzaveh, as usual. However, we also read a maftir from a second Torah scroll, which includes the following verses,
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. 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. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord 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).
The explicit implication of this paragraph is that the act of remembering this particular story, and perhaps also recounting it verbally, will blot out the memory of Amalek, even though every generation will be forced to confront another Amalek again and again. In the haftara for Shabbat Zachor we read from the Book of Samuel how Saul and Samuel fight the Amalekites and King Agag. Later in Jewish history, we learn in the Book of Esther that, according to the rabbinic interpretation, Haman, a descendant of Agag, set out to destroy the Jewish people. In different times during Jewish history, the worst adversaries were seen as new “Amalekites” trying to destroy the Jewish people.
Remembrance has taken on new implications in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The commandment to remember has been integrated into modern Jewish observance through holidays like Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), when we remember the horror of the Holocaust, and Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day), when we remember those fallen on Israeli wars and terrorist attacks. In fact, the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans found that for 73 percent of Jewish Americans “remembering the Holocaust”was an essential part of their Jewish identity, more than any other response! It is worth saying that these commemorations did not exist 75 years ago. We clearly continue to exert our Jewish memory.
Unfortunately, the lessons from Shabbat Zachor are very current and relevant since antisemitism is on the rise in nowadays. We have been witnessing the rise of antisemitism and the hatred for Israel, which frequently come together, in other parts of the world, and lately also in America.
This Shabbat we will fulfill the important mitzvah of remembering what Amalek did to our ancestors, what Amalek did to our people in the desert, and what the followers of Amalek did to us in so many different generations throughout our history. Let us remember, learn, and be alert, so that we can fight antisemitism firmly and decisively. It may be painful for many, but it is the only way to honor those who were fallen, to avoid the errors of the past, to learn from the experience, to learn how to fight back antisemitism, and to be better prepared for the future.