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Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

The Mitzvah of Memory

In Maimonides’ register of the 613 mitzvot, Zachor, the commandment to remember the evil of Amalek, takes up three spots at the tail end of his mitzvah list.

598: Wipe out the descendants of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19) 599: Remember what Amalek did to the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 25:17); and 600: Not to forget Amalek’s atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert (Deuteronomy 25:19)

Now, after Auschwitz, Zachor has gained many new shadings of meaning.

For one thing, it is a call for vigilance in the face of evil. “Never Forget” and “Never Again” have become our prime rallying cries, much closer in significance to Commandment #1 than 600, where Rambam put it.  But even though the commandment speaks of wiping out the memory of an enemy, Zachor has never really been about bloodthirsty revenge. Through the centuries, commentators like Maimonides looked for ways to reinterpret this call so that it would not appear so genocidal, by asserting that since Amalek no longer exists as a nation, the command to entirely wipe out a national population no longer applies.

Early Hasidic commentators tried to internalize Amalek. They met the enemy, and Amalek is us. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev wrote:

Not only are Jews commanded to wipe out Amalek, who is the descendant of Esau, but each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart. When the power of evil in each of us arises, Amalek is present in the world. 

After the Holocaust, that call to wipe out our inner Amalek resonates at a time when so many have sought vengeance in the name of Jewish victims. Zachor was the inspiration for Baruch Goldstein’s murderous spree in Hebron on Purim of 1994, when he took the commandment, which is inextricably connected to that holiday, and played it out in grotesque fashion by murdering 29 Muslims at prayer. After that horrific distortion of even the most extreme interpretation of Zachor, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, added:

Such an act is an obscenity and a travesty of Jewish values. That it should have been perpetrated against worshippers in a house of prayer at a holy time makes it a blasphemy as well . . .Violence is evil. Violence committed in the name of God is doubly evil. Violence against those engaged in worshipping God is unspeakably evil.

Here are some more new shadings of this commandment for our time.

  • When we remember the evil of Amalek, that commandment specifically about keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust itself.
  • Zachor is not a call to punish the villains or simply to remember the Holocaust as a singular event. Rather it is a call to remember the victims—each individual, those who were killed and those who have clung to life. Our task is to ensure that never again should a cry from the depths of despair, danger and loneliness go unheeded— from anywhere and anyone, not just victims of the Holocaust itself.
  • The commandment is not simply to remember the victims but to remember their stories, their legacies and most of all, their names.  Names are the currency of memory. In the Holocaust, Jews and other victims were denied their names, and therefore their humanity, their individuality and their uniqueness.  Victims were stripped of their human dignity. Their names were replaced by numbers. Their shoes, jewelry and clothing were ripped from them. Even their hair, perhaps a human’s most distinct, individuating feature, was shorn. To have a name is to be unique, loved and connected. The book of Proverbs states that while most things in life are transitory, a good name lasts forever.
  • And Zachor is not simply a call to preserve the memory of one dark chapter in history, but to preserve all historical memory, Never forget” means to remember that there is an authentic basis for experienced truth, that facts matter and we should be accountable to them.  The sin of Holocaust denial murders each victim yet again, by murdering their memory.

So the commandment zachor, as filtered through the Holocaust, has come to mean that we’ve got to remember and to cherish the uniqueness and sanctity of every human being, down to even the smallest shreds of their existence—every strand of hair, every single letter of every name.

Which, incidentally, is why Nazis hate Jews—then and now. Nazis have always been about numbers, while Jews have always been more about names. The second book of the Torah is called “Shmot,” “names.”  Jews refuse to forfeit the distinctiveness of each human being. Jews refuse to degrade anyone’s sanctity and dignity, body and soul. In fact, the Hebrew word for soul, neshama, has the word shem—name—right at its heart. Jews are, after all, Semites—descendants of Noah’s son Shem—so Jews are literally “Name-ists.”

And the hater of Jews is, by definition, an anti-Shemite—the “Denier of names.”  One who defiles God is one who perpetrates what is called a “Hillul ha-shem,” a desecration of the Name; and one who dies the holiest of deaths, as a martyr, dies, “Al Kiddush hashem,” in an act of ultimate sanctification of the Name.

When Jews say the Mourner’s Kaddish, after Auschwitz there is an added purpose. We are praying not only to restore the sanctity of God’s name in the traditional sense, but also to affirm the infinite value of each human life. The words of this ancient prayer call for the restoration of cosmic wholeness in the face of a shattered present, and that wholeness can only be achieved through the renewal and re-sanctification of the “Great Name.”

Ultimately, Zachor is not a commandment at all, but a destiny. For we know that no matter what we do, Amalek won’t let us forget Amalek.  Amalek has a way of popping up every so often to remind us never to forget.  These days it seems to be popping up quite a bit.  As King Saul discovered in his day and Mordechai in his, there is something in the very nature of the universe that won’t allow us to destroy Amalek completely.  And yet we must never stop trying.

We must never forget to blot out the memory of genocidal evil.  Since Auschwitz, Zachor has become the most important commandment.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Cobie, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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