Urged to remember

We must remember the heinous crimes of Amalek so that we may avoid the danger of repeating those crimes ourselves.

Past / Future (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Past / Future
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
On this Shabbat we find ourselves swinging between past and future.
The weekly Torah portion tells us about the ancient rites of the Tabernacle. But this Shabbat also looks forward to the upcoming celebration of Purim. And the additional reading tells us to remember our past encounter with the heartless Amalek people while concluding with the injunction to wipe out their memory entirely some time in the future.
This time-consciousness is evident in the way our tradition understood the very name of our Torah portion – Tzav, command: “It is none other than a term for urging onward, immediately and for future generations,” says Rashi.
What command should we so urgently embrace? As we are instructed about the burnt offering sacrifice, an offering so holy that it is entirely given to God, entirely consumed on the altar, we are strictly commanded to clean up the ashes that are left behind. Every act, no matter how holy, no matter how wholly dedicated to God, produces a residue of dirt. That dirt must be handled, collected, and preserved on the altar, before it is swept away.
What residue do our actions, sacred or profane, leave behind? It is the task of our memories to collect what remains of our past, for the present and for future generations. But what are we to remember? And what shall we sweep away as so much dirt and ash?
The commandment to remember Amalek gives this Sabbath its special name, the Shabbat of Remembrance. This commandment is framed in a paradoxical way, exhorting us to remember Amalek and, also, to blot out Amalek’s memory. We may mitigate this paradox if we consider that the command to remember is immediate, while the command to obliterate the memory is for later, future generations. We are to erase Amalek’s remembrance only “once God gives you rest from all your surrounding enemies.”
The inference to be drawn is that we must remember Amalek in the immediate present, as long as we have no peace with our neighbors. Why? A common view sees this as the necessary mindset we must have in order to counter ruthless foes. We must be ever vigilant, always mindful of how evil they are. We must be strong and forceful. But why, then, should the command to obliterate Amalek’s remembrance – usually taken to mean obliterating Amalek itself – not apply immediately, while we are engaged in deadly combat with them? Why defer it?
We must read this commandment differently. It is precisely when we face deadly foes that we must remember the heinous crimes of Amalek – attacking the innocent and the weak – so that we may avoid the danger of repeating those crimes ourselves, of ignoring the dirt we will produce in the name of our holy purpose lest we sweep it away, believing that only Amalek is capable of black evil, while we are ever pure and white. Only if we remember what Amalek did may we hope to use that horror to protect ourselves from perpetrating the same evil. But, if we forget the example of Amalek, we also become capable of such violence.
During the approaching holiday of Purim we will stamp out Haman’s name to obliterate his memory. We are urged to read the names of his hanged sons in one hurried breath. But how shall we read the reports of Jewish-inflicted violence of “sword-blow, death and obliteration” that surround that list? Did we really inflict such damage when “no person stood against them”? Could it be that we are also capable of sinful violence against the innocent?
If we do not ask that question when we read these verses, but, instead, sweep them away prematurely, then we will have forgotten the memory of Amalek at the very moment we are commanded to recall it. If we face our foes while sedated by self-righteous amnesia, we will be incapable of distinguishing between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai.
We are engaged in a painful struggle over what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. Our historians have refused to allow us to forget the dirt we have made while Israel sacrificed for a holy cause. We prefer to forget, but handling and preserving our own dirt is our sacred task to perform – for our sakes and for future generations.
When will we be able to erase the memory of Amalek’s evil? Only after we succeed in making peace with our enemies all around us. Once we make peace we can sweep up the dirt and ashes and carefully bury them. But not before that.
David Greenstein is rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Montclair, New Jersey and the author of ‘Roads to Utopia: The Walking Stories of the Zohar.’ He will be teaching at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, this summer