On Memory and Imagination: Shabbat Zakhor 5783
A few weeks ago, I reflected on the mindfulness practice of walking the dog. As I was doing so this week, an amazing thing happened. I put in my earbuds to listen to some music. I pressed the button my phone to listen to the “Josh’s Station” randomized playlist on my phone (we can discuss whether this was a good mindfulness practice later).
After some of the usual material—a perhaps unexpected combination of Twentieth century classical composers, mid-century crooners like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, and folk singers like Carole King and John Denver—I was stopped in my tracks as the voices of my parents came online. Apple Music had called up an interview my eldest son, now 20, did with them when he was 9 years old. It was in my iTunes library. I hadn’t even remembered its existence.
I had a sudden and jolting experience of visceral memory: My parents’ kitchen table, where the interview took place and where I ate breakfast and dinner every day for the first 18 years of my life; the high sound of my son’s voice as a child, which is so different than the deep sound of his voice today; hearing my mother speak so fluidly about her memories of living in Ann Arbor and on a kibbutz in Israel before I was born, which she cannot do today; and, most poignantly, hearing my father as he chimed in, and realizing this was the first time I had heard his voice since he died over four years ago. The experience of feeling those memories brought me to a standstill on the sidewalk and then filled me with a desire to share the track with my family. I rushed to send it to them on WhatsApp.
It’s not as though I don’t think about these things or remember them. Images of my childhood home pass through my mind frequently. Pictures of our family fill our house, so I think of Jonah as a child and pass by photos of my Dad all the time. And I can hear his voice in my mind when I sometimes imagine making the weekly Friday afternoon phone call I made for years to wish him a good Shabbos. But hearing these voices is a different experience, and it seemed to activate a deeper register of memory—something that lives not just as a cognitive awareness, but a more fully embodied reality.
I remember my teacher, Rabbi Saul Berman, once giving a talk in rabbinical school about the idea of zakhor, the imperative to memory. Rabbi Berman made the point that, for the Torah, a zekher isn’t simply a cognitive act. Rather, when we remember in this way—as in the imperative to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, or when we remember Shabbat to make it sacred—the act of remembering is intended to move us to action. It isn’t just limited to the mind, but is something we’re meant to experience with our whole selves—not only remembering, but re-membering. Through this full experience of memory, we reawaken to our deepest understanding of ourselves and our most fundamental responsibilities, and we are moved to act on them.
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat of Remembrance, or the Shabbat of Memory, which happens every year just before Purim. The name derives from the traditional observance of making a special Torah reading, outside the regular order, drawn from Deuteronomy 25:17-19. It begins with a call to “Zakhor—remember what Amalek did to you on your journey when you left Egypt,” attacking the weak and vulnerable without mercy. It concludes with the perplexing instruction that, once we are settled and safe in the land, we are to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” I say perplexing because if we are to remember, then why does the Torah need to tell us, additionally, not to forget? But also perplexing because the Torah seems to be exhorting us to do something very similar to what Amalek did to us: to destroy without mercy or compassion. How could the Torah command such a thing?
The moral problematics of this mitzvah have been written about at length by many others wiser than I, and space does not permit me to do that kind of exegetical work here. But the nub of it, in my experience, centers on the question of memory and imagination. Our acts of remembering can have the effect of collapsing the distance between us and other things and people. We experience our interconnection across time and space, as when I heard the voices of my son and my parents in my childhood kitchen reaching out to me from eleven years ago. Something is awakened, activated within us in that moment of memory. We re-member ourselves with a larger unity of which we are a part, and we can even feel like we inhabit that world for a while, or longer.
If we go too far, though, these acts of remembering can delude us. I was not, in fact, standing in 2012 in my childhood kitchen, I was standing on the sidewalk in Skokie. My son is not 9 years old, he’s 20. My father is not alive, he’s gone from this world. The temptation to live as though that distance is collapsed is very strong, and we rely in such moments on our practice to mindfully keep us awake to the reality in which we truly live in this moment. That awareness enables us to enter, mindfully and responsibly, into a world of imagination in which we can be in those places and hear those voices that are real but not real—and to return to the world of our here and now with reawakened, deepened awareness. I think that’s perhaps a different way of framing Rabbi Berman’s lesson from all those years ago.
This dance of closeness and distance is the work of imagination and, in my mind, marks one of our first gestures toward Passover, which comes just 30 days after Purim. As the Rabbis teach, in every generation we must see ourselves “as if” we left Egypt. That k’ilu, as if, is the hinge on which the act of imagination pivots, inviting us to enter worlds of memory—memories of our direct experience and those of a larger collective—and to return to the world of reality with a reawakened, heightened and deepened awareness. We begin that work on Shabbat Zakhor and continue it as we prepare for Passover, the Omer, and the journey toward a renewed experience of revelation on Shavuot. May we embrace this season of memory and imagination and the opportunity for spiritual re-membering it brings us.