Shabbat Zachor Sermon
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
I heard a couple of jokes last week, and fortunately I can remember them.
The first goes like this: Every time I lie down on my new bed, all the embarrassing moments of my life come flooding back to me. I shouldn’t have bought the repressed memory foam mattress.
The second joke was: I couldn’t quite remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me…
American philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But is it possible to remember some things just a little too much?
This week we observe Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance in Jewish tradition. By custom, after reading our weekly Torah portion of Tetzaveh from Exodus we add a short section of text that recalls the attack by the enemy nation Amalek on our Israelite stragglers as we escaped Egypt during the Exodus. This vicious and cowardly attack is memorialized each year on the Shabbat prior to Purim. The short maftir section both begins and ends with words of memory: Zachor et asher asa lecha Amalek, it begins, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” and it concludes with the powerful statement timcheh et zecher Amalek mitachat Hashamayim; al tishkach, “Obliterate the memory of Amalek under heaven; don’t forget!”
We always read this section the week before the holiday of Purim, which commemorates the great salvation of the Jews of Iran in Mordechai and Esther’s time, over 2400 years ago, because Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is supposed to be a descendant of the Amalekites. In some idiosyncratic Jewish traditions, all deep enemies of Judaism and Jews are linked to Amalek and Haman, including Torquemada and even Hitler—who actually outlawed Purim in Nazi Germany. In some interpretations the late unlamented Saddam Hussein—who lost the 1st Gulf War on Purim 1991, and saw the 2nd Gulf War that toppled him begin on Purim in 2003—and Iran’s anti-Semitic mullah leader, Ayatollah Khameini, are also descendants of Haman, and thus Amalek. The beat goes on…
There are many curious customs associated with this mitzvah, the very specific commandment issued in Deuteronomy to “obliterate Amalek.” Some Jewish communities, on Purim, write the name “Amalek” on their shoes and then rub it off on the floor during the Megillah reading. And a traditional sofer, a Torah scribe, will begin to write a new Torah by inscribing the name “Amalek” on a piece of parchment and then crossing it out. Since Haman was an “Agagite,” descended from the king of the Amalekites, the whole custom of graggers and noisemaking on Purim to blot out Haman’s name comes from this same commandment.
All of this raises a very good question. Amalek was a minor people, more of a tribe than a nation. As a distinct political or ethnic entity it has long disappeared from the earth. In fact, if we really want to obliterate Amalek’s name from under heaven, the easiest way would be for us Jews to stop talking about it. No one else would ever mention it again. Poof, Amalek is gone, blotted out!
And yet, instead, we read this passage twice a year in most synagogues in the world, once in Deuteronomy during the regular Torah reading cycle and once just before Purim on this Shabbat Zachor. Why the elaborate need to remember a truly ancient wrong done to us?
Psychoanalysts could say that the profound emotional injury perpetrated on our people at the very moment of redemption—we had just gotten out of Egypt after 400 years of slavery—was so painful we Jews have never really gotten over it. The catharsis of remembering and overcoming Amalek each and every year helps us move to a healthier, more holistically complete place. We remember so that we can overcome.
Political scientists would look at this remembering differently. They would suggest that the military and organizational weakness that allowed the straggling which Amalek took advantage of must be remembered so that we can avoid falling into that trap again. Organization, strength, preparation, a proper plan for functioning are all essential to being a real nation.
Moral experts might even see this paradoxical need as a kind of davka experience: the commandment to exterminate, actually forces us to remember our failings, lest we, too, be subject to such destruction. Thus, we can never become too confident of our own prowess or foresight, and must remain forever humble.
All good explanations. But we can also see this more simply.
Remembering might be the primary Jewish act. We are commanded, using the same exact Hebrew word, zachor et yom haShabbat, to remember the Shabbat, an unalloyed good just as Amalek is considered an unadulterated evil. Both are to be remembered, the good and the bad. Our existence as intelligent, informed, thoughtful people, as true Jews, is contingent on our ability to truly learn, to do Torah. In order to do that well, we must exercise our memories vigorously and completely. That is true for both the positive and challenging experiences of our lives. We remember Amalek, and Haman, and Hitler. But we also remember Moses, and Esther and Mordechai, and Ben Gurion. Only by remembering both the good and the bad, and learning from both, can we achieve the highest level of serving b’tzelem Elohim, as imitators of God.
The founder of Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, said, “remembering is the secret to redemption.” By remembering we can learn. And in doing so, we can learn how to act now, and in the future, and for the future.
On this Shabbat Zachor, this Sabbath of remembering, we do well to remember both the bad and the good, so that we may always continue to learn and grow, with the ultimate goal of healing this troubled world.