Core Memory: When the Torah Says Zachor

Rabbi Soloveichik, z”l, is credited with articulating the distinction between מעשה המצוה and קיום המצוה, between the action that constitutes a mitzvah and the fulfillment of the mitzvah itself. Easy examples are prayer, where the action of reciting the words isn’t the fulfillment of the mitzvah, the avodah she-balev is, the service of the heart. In mourning, too, the actions of sitting shiva, tearing one’s garments, and so on, are all ways to express or arouse the internal mourning that is the true fulfillment of the obligation.

This distinction arises when the Torah obligates us to remember, it seems to me. The starkest example is the public reading of Zachor, as Jews all over the world enacted last Shabbat. They gathered to hear three verses read from the Torah, in fulfillment of the commandment to remember Amalek. Rambam, Obligation 189, points out that the memory itself isn’t the issue, the emotions roused and maintained by that memory are.

To understand the difference between memory for its own sake and memory aimed at a larger purpose, let’s review some other examples. Sifra at the beginning of Parashat Behukotai notes times that the Torah obligates Jews to remember something and also not to forget it. Its first example is Shabbat, where the Torah tells us זכור in one place and שמור, guard it, in another. The guarding takes care of being sure not to forget, says Sifra, so זכור, remember, must be oral.

The second example is Devarim 9;7, where we are told to remember and not forget how we angered Hashem in the desert. Ramban in his glosses to Sefer haMitzvot, Omitted Obligation 7, wonders why this isn’t a mitzvah (but does not seem to count it). Aruch haShulchan Orach Chayyim 60;5 suggests that it was directed only at the generation of the desert.

Devarim 24;9 tells us to remember what Hashem did to Miriam, which Sifra notes cannot only be about not forgetting, since the previous verse had warned us to be careful not to incur tsara’at (and Hashem’s wrath with her expressed itself in tsara’at). We are supposed to remember what happened to Miriam over and above simply avoiding tsara’at. Ramban in to places says this establishes a mitzvah to remember what happened to Miriam, as part of our obligation to avoid lashon hara, slanderous speech.

The last example in Sifra is Amalek, where the Torah also tells us to remember, and not forget. Had the Torah only said לא תשכח, do not forget, that would have meant to be aware of it inside; once the Torah adds זכור, that means to say it out loud.

What Does Reciting It Do?

The question I think many of us avoid asking, perhaps for fear of the answer, is what value the Torah sees in reciting these memories. What does it add to our awareness of the issue to make us say it out loud?

My instinct would have been to say that it makes the memory more active, except that the Torah expects us to have a very active memory of many issues we are not obligated to recite aloud. Any food we eat has to be kosher, for example, which means that any time we ingest something, we have to remember the rules around eating food and be sure to stay within them. Yet the Torah sees no need for us to recite the rules of kashrut aloud, regularly or ever.

As soon as the Torah tells us to observe Shabbat, with serious penalties for transgression, our need to be aware of it, actively, is set. What does having us announce Shabbat orally (through kiddush and, perhaps, Havdalah) add to that awareness?

Who We Are When Caught Off Guard

My understanding of the Torah’s goals with זכור memories started with my first Purim in a Yeshiva.  Like many yeshivot, Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush) had a chagigah, with food and singing and dancing.

And drinking. Lots of drinking. Back then we were all less sensitive to the dangers of alcoholism, so I don’t share this as an endorsement of excessive drinking nor as characteristic of Gush, but that night, many people drank a lot. Some of those were senior students in the yeshiva, and their drunkenness was remarkable to behold.

Because, fully in their cups, sucking lemons to avoid passing out or a hangover, or something,  they had gathered little circles around them as they expounded on Torah topics. I’m not certain they were coherent, certainly not by the standards to which they would have held themselves in the light of day, but they were going on at length, quoting sources, by heart, Tanach, Gemara, Rambam, Ramban, R. Kook.

In Eruvin 65b, R. אילעאי tells us we know people בכיסו, בכוסו, ובכעסו, in their pockets, by how they spend their money, in their cups, how they act while drunk, and in their anger. The first and last aren’t our topic, but when we’re drunk, when we’ve lost conscious control, we show our essential selves.

Developing Our Core

I suggest that that’s what these memory commandments are urging us to train. We all have lots to remember in the ordinary sense of the word; jobs, rent, diet, exercise, family and friends, Torah, mitzvot. And the list goes on.

So when the Torah adds a command of זכור over and above that, it seems to me that it’s telling us to give these memories a more prominent place, to have them become more central to who we are. It’s not enough that inside of us we remember having left Egypt—a זכור not mentioned in Sifra, but other mitzvot around which make it clearly a core memory.

It’s not enough that we refrain from violating Shabbat, that we remember to stay away from tsara’at. Those memories have to take a more central role in who we are.

The road to that, I think the Torah is telling us, is articulation. When we make kiddush every Shabbat, when we tell the Pesach story (concentratedly on Seder night, and twice each other day) we are ideally shaping our deepest selves, the part that comes out when we’re not in conscious control.

For Shabbat and Pesach at least (and, for Ramban, for lashon hara as well), memory isn’t stagnant, a belief claim made in the abstract, such that if someone asks us whether Hashem created the world and/or took us out of Egypt, we answer in the affirmative.

Bringing It Alive in Ourselves

It’s that those become basic to our selves. I am, this year, pleased to be involved in a project with the OU we’re calling Change Your Pesach, Change Your Life. Each day from the first of Nisan through the end of Pesach, is going to feature a short piece building our sense of how to put ourselves back into that story, how to relive the Exodus as if we ourselves left Egypt—as the Haggadah says we’re supposed to. Bringing it alive, I hope and believe, will also put it closer to our center, more of the kind of memory the Torah wanted.

Who We Are When We’re No Longer Who We Are

If drunkenness is one way to see what sits at our core, it might be that dementia is another. As people lose themselves, but are not yet completely lost, I have several times had the impression—I stress that it’s an impression, not a claim to a scientific insight—that the person’s most essential elements come out.

For one, it might be writing—I once read a memoir of early Alzheimer’s. The man wrote the book, and I read it, to share what that stage of life was like for him. But he was too far gone already. The sharpness of insight that characterizes a memoir, that characterized earlier memoirs he had written, was already lost.  Still, the sentences and paragraphs all worked, he wasn’t incoherent; his core identity as a writer, a person who took his life and shared it with others in the name of insight, had not been lost.

I’ve seen pulpit rabbis who could no longer really have a conversation, but whose native instinct for greeting people and welcoming them was still intact. Or Torah scholars who could not absorb or discuss Torah, but whose ramblings were nonetheless filled with sources from the learning to which they had dedicated their lives.

The Challenge of Memory

We build ourselves with our actions. Usually, we work effectively enough to project what we want that we and others have no way of judging what is truly central, to ourselves or our peers. But there are moments, such as for those of us who let go a little bit on Purim. How we act then, R. Illai tells us, shows us who we are, who we’re becoming.

And the Torah is not agnostic about that. In the broad range of people the Torah is comfortable with us being, the memory of Creation, as expressed by Shabbat, the memory of Egypt, as expressed Seder night and throughout the year, the memory of how even a righteous woman like Miriam suffered for slandering another, are supposed to be part of who we try to shape ourselves to be.

The Quandary of Remembering Amalek

I’ve left out the zachor that sparked these thoughts, the obligation to remember what Amalek did to us. Because, as Rambam makes clear, that memory is meant to retain in us the emotional willingness to commit acts (should halachah require it—and that’s a long conversation, too long for this forum) that cause us today to recoil.

Especially in the shadow of the Holocaust, many of us are uncomfortable, a bit resistant if not embarrassed, that our religion would urge us to do to others that which we so mourn when it happened to us. We take comfort, many of us, that it’s not practical today, that we can safely tuck it away with other parts of the religion we’re not ready to confront.

It still does raise a question for the many of us who made special efforts to hear that part of the Torah read this past Shabbat. It’s not enough not to forget Amalek, we heard ourselves told, we have to remember them. And, like the Rav might have said, tradition has shown us that hearing the reading of zachor is only the action of the mitzvah. The fulfillment of that mitzvah—if Shabbat and Pesach are parallels—is in that memory becoming a part of our essence.

Leaving aside Amalek, the call to memory is one that I experience as a call to renewed self-evaluation, not of our flaws and merits, but of our awareness of that which is most important to us. Five weeks ago in Parashat Bo, Moshe Rabbenu told us to remember the day we left Egypt, three weeks ago in Parashat Yitro, Hashem told us to remember Shabbat as the day on which Hashem ceased Creation. This past Shabbat, there was Amalek, and this summer, we’ll hear again about Miriam.

How much of that we have succeeded at imbibing, at giving its proper place in our personae, is a continuing question. One I think we can productively ask ourselves when we see the Torah including Amalek in the list of what we have to remember, not just internally, but actively, orally, and centrally.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.