Remembering Where We Have Been In Order To Remember Who We Must Be: Zakhor

This is not only Shabbat Terumah, when we began a series of Torah portions about building the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle for worshiping God in the desert. It is also Shabbat Zakhor, the challenging Shabbat before Purim on which we read the command in Deuteronomy 25: 17 – 19. We are commanded to never forget to blot out the memory of Amalek because the Amalekites attacked the weak and the weary from behind. Our Haftarah is First Samuel 15-34. Saul loses his kingship because he spares Agag, the king of the Amelekites in his day, and an ancestor of Haman, the villain of the Purim story. and doesn’t immediately kill all of their livestock.  Whereas the Tabernacle we began to build this week is where the sacrificial cult is institutionalized, the prophet Samuel makes it clear to Saul that neither he nor God accept the excuse that God’s command was disobeyed in order to sacrifice the livestock, “Does Adonai have great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as much as in obedience to Adonai’s Voice? Behold, obedience is better than to sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams.” (Samuel I 15:22).

I admit that I am predictable, and I am going to repeat questions and texts that I come back to year after year, but maybe with some new answers:

  1. Isn’t it a contradiction to be commanded to “always remember” to “blot out the memory” of Amalek? The memory is not blotted out as long as we remember.
  2. Are there descendants of Amalek to be fought in every generation, or is it the qualities of Amalek we must fight?
  3. Rashi teaches that the prohibition against acting eifa v’eifa (Originally to use false weights and measures, but expanded to refer to acting in a different and discriminatory manner towards different people or groups.) just before the command to blot out Amalek is because when we act eifa v’eifa, we should be worried because we arouse Amalek.
  4. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch teaches that what we are to remember Amalek when we are tempted to worship power and the powerful and militarism –– the characteristics of Amalek, when whenever we are tempted to act that way ourselves,

Blot out the memory of Amalek
Not Amalek, but the memory and fame and glory of Amalek. This endangers the moral future of humanity. As long as the history books will glorify military heroes…as long as people will want to emulate them.

Don’t Forget:
Don’t forget a thing if the day will come when you will want to be like Amalek, and like Amalek you won’t want to remember your obligations or to know God, but will look for the opportunity in small or big matters to exploit your advantage to harm other human beings.Don’t forget this when the day will come, and you will want to rid yourself of your role and mission as the

Jewish people that you accepted among humanity. Don’t envy the laurels of those that the world of foolishness gives to those who are happy when they sacrifice the happiness of other human beings. Remember the tear drenched land that cultivated those laurels.

Don’t forget this when the day will come when you will adapt the uncouthness and violence of Amalek. Stand tall and preserve your humanity and the value of justice you learned from your God. They are the future. In the end, humaneness and justice will prevail over uncouthness and violence. You were sent to herald and bring this future closer through your fate and your example—this victory and this future.

Hirsch argues that what we blot out is the negative glory and reverence we are tempted to give to those who act as did Amalek.

The corollary is that there are essentially three things we must remember:

  1. Our own experiences of suffering, oppression and violence
  2. The negative examples of who we do not wish to be or emulate.
  3. Who we are and how we are to act.

When we remember all three, we will hopefully not forget who we are supposed to be.

That is also a function of what we learn from what we remember. I recall the classic debate between those who argue that the lesson of the history of the oppression of Jews is to never again to be in a position to be treated as we were treated in the past, and those who argue that our obligation is to ensure that what happened to us never happens to anybody ever again.  Of course, both are true.  They should not be contradictory.

Last week we were commanded not to mistreat the widow or the orphan or the non-Jew living among us because we are to remember that we were once in that position. Zakhor essentially teaches us the same lesson. When we learn from our history that who we are is a people who say that what  is unacceptable behavior  towards us is unacceptable towards anybody, we take a significant step towards blotting out that behavior from the world. We remember what must not be.

The essence of what must be blotted out is the systematic and oppressive discrimination of the weak and powerless. The key element in trapping people in poverty is creating rules that by their very nature ensure punish people for being in their situation by making that situation the reason for them not being able to get out of it.  This is the case in terms of the rules of debt, credit, or the criteria for public housing.  The building and zoning laws the Occupation can impose on Palestinians because we unilaterally make the rules ensures that Palestinians will find it almost impossible to build legally.  The State interprets rules of trespassing and theft in ways that make it very difficult for the Palestinians who are not the police or the army or the judges to get the system to defend them against trespassing or theft…  Whether we are talking about Palestinians or Israelis living in poverty, they are less likely to be able to avail themselves of the legal help needed to negotiate the system, and eventually escape it.

May this Shabbat inspire us to blot out all forms of discrimination and unequal treatment both because we of remember where we have been, who our past has made us, who we wish to be and the world God wants us to create.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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