Cheryl Levi

Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance

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This Shabbat, the Shabbat before the Jewish holiday of Purim, religious Jews all over the world will flock to the synagogue to keep one of the Torah’s commandments: to remember  Amalek.  The commandment in itself is not rare in Judaism.  The verb “remember” appears in the Torah 169 times.  Clearly, memory is a critical part of Judaism.  What makes this commandment interesting is what we are required to remember.

The National Geographic has an interesting article on “cultural memory, which they define as “the constructed understanding of the past that is passed from one generation to the next through text, oral traditions, monuments, rites, and other symbols.”  But cultural memory is not simply an “understanding of the past”.  There are other extremely important elements to cultural memory.

Firstly,  it is a way to learn from the past.  The well-known saying “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” has proven itself again and again.  According to the National Geographic article, traumatic memories are some of the most powerful ones.  The article brings the example of Russia’s role in World War Two in which 10 million Russians were killed.  This historical event is still a vital part of Russian remembrance.  The memory serves to prevent a tragedy like this from reoccurring.   It also provides them with feelings of strength, defiance, and survival.

Secondly,  cultural memory is an important part of cultural identity.   In his book Covenant and Conversation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses the importance of history for Jewish identity.  When Moses first encountered God at the burning bush, he asked the question, “Who am I?”.   Seemingly he was asking God, “Who am I to stand in front of Pharoah?,” but Rabbi Sacks explains that Moses was asking a much more fundamental question.  He grew up in Egypt and then in Midian, and now he is being told to become the leader of the Jewish people.  Moses actually wanted to know who he really was.

God’s response was telling.  He was a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Moses’ identity was related to his genealogy, not where he lived.  It was the history of his people that defined his essence.  God explained to Moses about the promise He made to his forefathers.  He explained that He told them He would bring the Jewish people out of slavery to freedom.  This is the story that the Jewish people would tell over and over again, through every generation because as Rabbi Sacks puts it, “we are what we remember”.

According to National Geographic, cultural memory is the longest form of memory, and as collective memory (as opposed to an individual memory) it is preserved in objects, symbols, activities, and books.  It provides us with a deep comprehension of the culture, values, and norms of a particular society.

Shabbat is a perfect example of the latter idea.  In Exodus 20:8, we are commanded to remember the Shabbat.  We do so through prayer, food, song, and refraining from certain activities.  Shabbat is more than a remembrance of the six days of creation, it is a reflection of the values and beliefs of Judaism.  It celebrates the ideas of monotheism and God’s interaction in the world.  It also celebrates the values of family and Torah learning.  The Jewish Shabbat reflects the uniqueness of Judaism.

The concept of trauma in cultural memory reminds me of a book called “The Giver” written by Lois Lowry.  In it, Lowry creates a future society that aims to preserve peace and order among its residents.  To do so, it has to eliminate certain things.  Residents must be protected against strong negative feelings towards one another like anger and jealousy.  The society chooses elders to come up with rules that will accomplish this feat.  The people must dress the same, wear their hair the same way, and take pills to suppress strong emotions, even good ones which can ultimately threaten the peace of their society, like love.  The elders match people with their spouses, whom they choose based on a balance of the two personalities.  Children are presented to the “family units” during a ceremony marking the first year of the child’s life.  The “birth mothers” of these children never even meet the child.  It is a job within the community to give birth to children so that they can be given to a certain “family unit”.  Memories of the past are also abolished from the society.  There are no books, other than their book of rules.  Historical memories are perceived as threats to a society that wants nothing to do with the disorderly past.

There is, however, one member of this society who has the important role of remembering the past.  He is known as the “Giver”, and his job is to read books and learn about past generations.  But this Giver has special qualities.  Not only does he understand the past intellectually,  but he can experience it as if he lived through it himself.  The book is about a boy named Jonas who is appointed to be the next “Receiver” of these memories, which he obtains from the “Giver”.

The memories themselves can be exhilarating, delightful, depressing, and even terrifying, which are all strong emotions that the other residents cannot experience.  Ultimately, Jonas decides to abandon this community that suppresses historical experiences.  He decides that even things like war and death share important lessons for society.  After all,  it is human history that ultimately defines us as humans.

This Shabbat we will read about a particularly difficult historical event that we remember every year: the attack of Amalek in the desert.  We will read from the Torah:

REMEMBER what Amalek did to you along the way as you left Egypt; how he confronted you along the way, and smote the hindmost among you, all that were enfeebled, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.  Therefore, it shall be that when the Lord your God gives you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; you shall not forget. (Devarim 25:17-19)

The war against Amalek is a crucial event in Jewish history and a perfect example of cultural memory.  But why is Amalek singled out? Many nations attacked the Jewish people?

A multitude of reasons have been offered by commentators.  Some say that Amalek was the first nation to fight against the Jews after the splitting of the sea when other nations were afraid to do so. This made it more feasible for others to attack the Jews. Others believe that Amalek represents an idea, rather than a specific nation,  that is contrary to Judaism and must be contended with. But I believe October 7th has shed some new light on this commandment to remember.

I’m fully aware that articles and blogs have been written about the differences between Amalek and Hamas.  And while the commandment to wipe out Amalek cannot literally apply to any other nation (as Amalek was a biological nation that no longer exists), the commandment to remember them does apply.  And as stated above cultural remembrance is about many things.  It is about learning from the past and cultural identity. Unfortunately,  Jewish identity is very much associated with nations like Amalek.  Our history is replete with nations that have tried to wipe us off the face of the earth.  Purim is one example of such an event.  October 7th is another.

Hamas took lessons from Amalek.  They attacked the rear, the southern cities that were not properly protected.  They waited until we were weak, a nation divided both politically and socially over issues like judicial reform.  Like Amalek, their goal was simple – to wipe out the nation of Israel.  They made no secret about it.  It is most unfortunate that Jews have become identified with the malevolent plots of their attackers.

But the commandment to remember Amalek runs deeper. The fact that Hamas succeeded in torturing and murdering so many of us on October 7th was the result of the fact that we failed to remember.  This led to a dangerous form of complacency.  We simply did not believe that Hamas was so evil because we forgot about Amalek.  That is why this commandment is so crucial.  We must remember Amalek, so this does not happen again and again.  We must destroy the evil in our midst so that next year this will become another crucial memory, but no longer a living threat.

And there is still a further facet to this commandment.  The stories of Amalek, Purim, and October 7th are not just stories of our failures;  They are also stories of our resilience.  Amalek no longer exists.  The Persian Empire from the time of Purim no longer exists.  The Jewish nation outlived both.  And this is what will happen with Hamas.  Historically Jews have overcome every form of evil that has been thrown at them.  This history is also an essential part of our national identity.  And It’s crucial to remember that as well.

About the Author
Cheryl Levi is a writer and a high school English teacher who lives with her family in Bet Shemesh, Israel. She has a master's degree in medieval Jewish philosophy and has written numerous articles about faith crisis in Judaism. Her book, Reasonable Doubts, was published in 2010.
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