By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
We are incredible beings for so many reasons, perhaps none so much as our ability to embody so many seeming contradictions with such ease. We are both soul and flesh, corporeal and spirit. We are defined by our sense of self, by our individuality, by the “I” yet we are lost unless that “I” also exists as a “we”, unless we exist not just in the singular but in the plural. We have the instincts of the brutes of the field but we are also possessive of the ability to rise to the highest levels of charity and grace.
In the same way, each of us is granted at birth two most precious – and seemingly contradictory – gifts, memory and forgetfulness. Of these two, we often place the greater emphasis on memory, for without memory, we simply do not exist in any way that makes sense – personally or collectively.
Who am I as an individual if not the sum total of my experiences, which have meaning to me only by virtue of my memory of them? As anyone who has ever visited or cared for an Alzheimer’s patient knows only too well, when memories are gone or inaccessible, the “self” too is gone. In a very significant way, we cease to be if not for our memories.
Memory. That most gracious of gifts.
Or is it?
As much as memory is the cornerstone upon which our “self” is built; as much as it frustrates us to “lose” a name, or forget where we left our car keys; as much as we covet the gift of true memory, we should recognize that if we truly remembered everything we would cease to be able to function.
As much as we need to remember, we also need to forget.
If we remembered everything, we would not be able to survive the memories of our early pains, our past humiliations, yesterday’s insults and the embarrassments of our “trial and error” path through life.
It is a blessing to remember.
It is an equal blessing to forget.
As in every contradiction that we embody, the difficulty is in finding the meaningful balance between these two blessings, to find the perfect balance between all we want and need to remember and all we want and need to forget. There are times when we remember more than we care to. There are other times when we forget more than we should; times when we remember less than we desire, and forget less than we’d like.
The poet was on point when he wrote, “This world would be for us a happier place and there would be less regretting if we would remember to practice with grace the very fine art of forgetting.”
Would that it were! But that is the impetuous nature of these gifts; they are near impossible to control. Given the importance of memory and forgetfulness in our lives, it is small wonder that the Torah speaks to both.
Torah relates four events that are always to be remembered.
1. The Revelation at Sinai must always be recalled and personally renewed. Sinai is both a personal and a communal memory. However, its communal significance evaporates into history without renewed personal relevance and meaning.
2. The punishment inflicted upon Miriam for speaking ill of her brother must forever be remembered. In this instance, our recall helps us to guard our tongues against the most insidious of communal crimes, the crime of evil talk. This memory impels us to use our speech to uplift rather than destroy.
3. We are to remember the Sabbath. The apotheosis of the week is the Sabbath. Our weekly activities are, in fact, activities that drive us toward the Sabbath. We work for the Sabbath. We live for the Sabbath. When we remember Shabbat on Monday and Wednesday, we remember God, creation, revelation, the exodus from Egypt… all that is holy. Thus, throughout the week, we declare that each day is the first, or second, or third day towards the Sabbath. We remember!
4. Finally, we remember Amalek. Not just Amalek, the evil king, but Amalek, the evil impulse within each and every human being.
With these four explicit commands to remember, the Torah emphasizes the importance of memory to our individual and communal character. However, the Torah is also cognizant that remembering is not always fully developed or refined. Sometimes we simply can’t remember.
Sometimes the gift of forgetfulness dominates the gift of memory! Then what?
Too often, remembering seems to exist in opposition to forgetting. But the Torah’s goal in remembering is not simply establishing an absence of forgetfulness. The Torah never seeks the absence of something, rather the fullness of something.
The Torah asks for an active state of memory through an act or a personal effort of memory. Truly recalling Sinai demands a reliving of the event. Remembering Sinai can only be accomplished through personal participation in Torah learning.
In order to remember Miriam’s transgression some have ordained that the verse detailing Miriam’s punishment be recited daily after praying. The Ari noted that in reciting the words L’hodot l’cha prior to the Sh’ma, one should actually recall that one’s mouth was created not only to praise, but also to refrain from lashon hara. In doing so, he actively recalls that which occurred to Miriam.
Remembering the Sabbath calls for a daily declaration that today is the first or fourth day towards the Sabbath. Or, on the weekdays if one acquired food or other goods that would be appropriate or befitting for Shabbat, a declaration should be verbalized – lich’vod Shabbat, “in honor of the Sabbath.”
When asking us to remember, the Torah does not rely on the whims and fragility of our not-always-reliable gift of memory. Rather, the Torah seeks active reinforcement, lest we forget. Active forgetfulness is harder to achieve than passive remembering.
Of these four commands to remember, the first three bring with them grace and uplift. To remember the giving of Torah, the Sabbath, even the need to refrain from speaking ill of others all fill us with spiritual and social grace. However, the fourth command, to remember evil, is a challenge.
At the end of parashat Ki Tetze, before we are taught to recall the evil of Amalek, the Torah sets the uncompromising standards of just and perfect weights and measures. What is the connection? Rashi notes that “if you use false weights and measures, then you must anticipate the provocation of the enemy.” In other words, one can’t simply preach, teach, or recall that one’s evil impulse and desire must be overcome. Passivity is no match for our inner Amalek. Rather, he teaches, more than just remembering through the absence of forgetfulness, one must act and react, with honesty, integrity, with perfect and just weights and measures.
It is sometimes a burden to remember, but we can be sure that if we do not remember the Amalek, the Amaek will remember us!
It is an onerous burden to have our days darkened by the recollection of evil. But looking away, forgetting, is not an option. Evil is, as President Obama noted in referring to ISIS, a cancer. It grows. It metastasizes. It never sleeps. It never rests.
We forget Amalek at our peril.
The Torah teaches that, “Amalek happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God.” Devarim 25:18
Amalek takes the hindmost first, but is never satisfied to stop there. As Pastor Martin Niemoller wrote in response to the atrocities of the Holocaust:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me-and there was no one left to speak for me.
Eventually, Amalek comes for everyone.
Recently, we have been witness to the gruesome, barbaric beheading of an American journalist, James Foley, by the modern day Amalekits, ISIS. President Obama acknowledged that ISIS has no place in the civilized world but he emphasized that based on his understanding of history, “people like ISIS will ultimately fail.”
Perhaps. But only if we remember.
When confronted by Amalek, there is no place for hand-wringing or moralizing. There is the absolute imperative to remember, for to “not remember”, to forget is to look into the face of doom. We must remember so that we respond to Amalek without hesitation or diplomatic niceties and “wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven – you shall not forget.”
Those of us whose families perished at the hands of another Amalek should never be comforted by gentle words; no lesson about the curve of history bending toward good should ease our concern. Amalek – evil – does not simply disappear. United Nations blather will not diminish Amalek’s gathering strength. Yes, Amalek will “fail”. Ultimately, Amalek will always fail.
But at what cost?
If we wait until Amalek grows in strength, the anguish and grief we endure will grow as well. The only modern day approach to Amalek is the one demonstrated by the grandchildren of those who experienced only too well what happened when the world chose not to remember what Amalek does, the IDF.
The world would do well to mirror the courage and decisiveness of the IDF in acting to “wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven.” At the very least, the “civilized world” should be rising as one, applauding the IDF.
Instead, we get handwringing. We hear urgent calls to stop the IDF and leave Amalek to continue to metastasize.
On his weekly blog (RabbiWein.com), Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that, “In 1941, the Germans occupied the town of Kelm in Lithuania. The town was famous in Jewish life because of the presence there of a famed yeshiva that embodied mussar – Jewish holy ethics and moral behavior towards man and God. The Germans destroyed the entire town, executed its Jewish population and killed the students and teachers at the yeshiva, burying many of them alive.
“It was there, and in other similar places as well, that good met evil head on. In the short run, it appeared that Amalek triumphed. It may always appear that evil wins out – witness our world of terror, genocide, fraud and malevolent hypocrisy. But in the long run, it is good that triumphs and survives.
“Evil carries with it a very heavy price that consumes all those associated with it. Amalek’s victories, vicious and all-encompassing as they appear, are still only temporary. The Torah tells us that the Lord fights Amalek, so to speak, ‘from generation to generation.'”
Evil never gives in.
Perhaps ISIS’s medieval cruelty has finally garnered the attention of the civilized world to the immediate and ever-present danger of Amalek. Perhaps, the world will heed the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu when he recently told his Cabinet, “Many states in the region and in the West are beginning to understand that this is a single front, that Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas. They act in the same way. They are branches of the same poisonous tree. They are two extremist Islamic terrorist movements that abduct and murder innocents, that execute their own people, that shrink at nothing including the willful murder of children. In recent days we heard from Hamas spokesmen that they admit to what we have been saying all along, that they murdered [the three Israeli teens] Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.
“Both movements are, in effect, making an effort to establish Islamic rule, caliphates, without human rights, across wide areas, by slaughtering minorities….With every passing day the world understands more and more that Hamas operates like ISIS and that ISIS operates like Hamas. The State of Israel will continue to stand alongside the civilized world in its war against extremist and violent Islam.”
Amalek lives in our days. For students of history and Torah, this is no surprise.