RememberCan you imagine driving down the street and suddenly realizing that you forgot where you are coming from? If you don’t know where you are coming from, you can’t know where you are going or why. Severed from the past, the present has no bridge to the future.
I once chatted with a fellow suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and mentioned seeing him earlier that morning. He had no memory of our meeting so I dismissed it to spare him discomfort. His eyes watered as he said, you know, when I can’t remember what I did in the past, I can’t make sense of my present. And it frightens me.
Imagine meeting someone, who knows you, but you have no idea who he is. He acts like you know him so you need to play along, tapping about in the proverbial darkness until you learn enough to figure it out. This happens on occasion, but imagine going through this with every person you meet. Did you ever awaken in the morning, knowing that you were a little tipsy last night and wondering if you said or did anything to offend anyone? Imagine feeling that way each and every day. That is the tragedy of forgetting.
Memory binds our present to the past and builds a bridge to the future. Knowing the context of each moment, where it comes from and where it is headed, helps us know what to do with it. Knowing our heritage, helps us know our destiny, but without memory, there is no future.
Rabbi Moishe Bryski from Chabad of Agoura Hills suggested the following etymology. Remember is the opposite of dismember. Forgetting dismembers your present from your past. Remembering, sows them back together. With a seamless tie to our past, we are well on our way to the future.
ApathyThis Shabbat we will chant a selection from the Torah that exhorts us to remember what Amalek did to the Jewish people. Amalek is the name of a tribe that attacked the Jews shortly before they arrived to Sinai. They wanted to cut us off before our journey even began. They sought to keep us from our destination before we even embarked. G-d promised that neither His name nor His throne would be complete until every trace of this tribe is erased.
Here we have an anomaly. We are exhorted to erase his name, but to remember what he did. We are required to render this world Amalek free, but never forget what he did to deserve it.
To understand this, we need to present a bit of history. The Jewish people attempted and failed to annihilate the tribe of Amalek during the reign of king Saul. After that period, the tribe dispersed all over the world and it is no longer possible to identify its members. Thus we can no longer fulfill this obligation literally and must contend ourselves with fulfilling it conceptually.
The conceptual corollary of Amalek is complacency and apathy toward Judaism. The tie between Amalek and apathy is rooted in his attack against the Jews. At the time, the nations revered the Jews as a people with protective Divine grace. If you attacked them, they would call down the wrath of G-d on you.
Yet Amalek attacked. It was a foolish move because he was soundly defeated, but his intent was never to triumph. It was simply to survive. If he survived, it would mean that others could similarly survive if they attacked and the nations would cease to revere the Jewish G-d. They would realize that it is possible to attack and survive. One day they might even triumph.
Thus Amalek sought to cool the ardor, to inject a note of doubt and even apathy, toward G-d. If we could survive, G-d is not so awesome after all. Hence the connection between Amalek and apathy.
When we are confronted with apathy, we might be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that if we are apathetic about one thing, we can simply turn our focus to something else. The Torah tells us to beware. If you don’t remember the danger of Amalek, you won’t know to watch out for him. If you don’t know that apathy can sever your connection with G-d, you won’t know to resist and combat it.
Memory of the past is the bridge to the future. Knowing what Amalek did in the past, enables us to identify the role of Amalek in the present and react to it. Remember the fellow with Alzheimer’s? He was unhinged every time he met someone in the present because he couldn’t remember his history with that person? Knowing the role of Amalek and his corollary, apathy, enables us to flag it as a danger and to combat it.
Shabbat ZachorBecause of the reading about remembering Amalek, the entire Shabbat is named Zachor, remember. It is broader than the narrow obligation to remember about Amalek. It refers to the entire spectrum of Judaism. Remember what we are all about. Remember our past. Understand that we are the children of Abraham, the students of Moses and the subjects of David. Remember that we built a Temple, offered sacrifices and entered the Holy of Holies.
Remember the destruction and the suffering. Remember the ideals that they suffered for. Remember the struggle to return and rebuild. Remember why they returned to the Holy Land and why they invested blood and tears. Only by remembering, by reconnecting with our past, can we herald the future of our destiny. Don’t relinquish your role, don’t jettison your heritage. Know the stakes because the future depends on it.
A Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail asked his Jewish guard during Passover, why he was eating leavened bread. The guard replied that he was a modern man with no connection to the ancient slaves that left Egypt. The prisoner later said that this moment filled him with hope. He figured that a people with no connection to their past, had no claim on a future.
Thankfully, this prisoner was wrong. We have not forgotten our past. The dominant majority of Jews celebrate Passover in one way or another. Hundreds of thousands of Jews will celebrate Purim next week. Millions of Jews, the world over, will celebrate Passover next month. We have a vibrant grip on our past and plot a steady course toward our future. But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve.
Shabbat Zachor reminds us that Judaism is alive in the present; imbued with a mission from the past, we chart a course for the future. Remember who we are and where we come from for memory is the navigator of life. We, the students of history, the champions of memory are the gatekeepers of destiny.
And because we remember, we fight to preserve. We don’t abandon our land or our people in it’s time of need. We invest our blood and protect our home because we remember who and what we are.
And because we remember we enable G-d to bring about that time when both His name and His throne will be complete. That will be the time of Moshiach, may he come speedily in our days. Amen.