Torah | Burden of memory is knowing when it’s time to forgetby rabbi yoel kahn
|Follow j. on||and|
I Samuel 15:2-15:34
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, in honor of its special Torah reading from Deuteronomy 25:17-29, which begins: “Remember…” Always falling on the Shabbat before Purim, it recalls a Torah-era bad guy, Amalek, who is considered both the archetype and ancestor of all future enemies of the Jews, especially Haman, villain of the Purim story. The Torah instructs us to “Remember Amalek,” but then in verse 19 goes on, in my paraphrase, to “ensure he is forgotten.” Purim, in turn, is all about memory and forgetting.
In the Purim story, the king forgets about how Mordechai saved his life and is reminded at a crucial moment in the story. Haman never forgets the slights he has experienced and saves them all up. Mordechai forgets that Esther is an adult and he can’t just tell her what to do. Esther, it would appear, wishes to forget she is Jewish, until she remembers that her own fate is bound up with her people’s.
Judaism is all about remembrance: In the Kiddush on Friday evening, we sanctify the Shabbat as “recollection of the work of creation” and “a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt.” For our own generation, the responsibility to remember the Holocaust has become a central mitzvah for us and our children; the designers of Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, inscribed the words “remembrance is the secret of redemption” at the end of the exhibit.
Our commitment to justice and to tikkun olam, repair of the world, is rooted in the Torah’s original linkage between our own remembered history and the claims this history makes on us: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:19).
Yet, like so many valuable and precious things, there can be an excess of memory. Memory of what was must be balanced against what is; we are informed and strengthened by the past, but we must be careful lest our honoring the past turns from respect to idolatry. For the Jewish people, this can be seen in a habit of viewing our history as a narrative of unending victimization. You probably know the joke already: What’s the story of Purim, or any other Jewish holiday? “They tried to kill us; we survived; now let’s eat!”
There is much more to the story and to our celebration than a simplistic reading. As modern Jewish historians have demonstrated, the experiences of Jews were far more nuanced and varied than such a monochromatic narrative permits.
The problem with an excess of memory is that it keeps us from being fully present; we are limited in our imagination of what might be by the belief that we and the world can only re-enact the same dynamics over and over again.
This is, of course, even more true in our personal lives. So much of how we respond to the present is rooted in the patterns and memory we have learned — and these do not always serve us well. Sometimes, I find that I would be better off if I wasn’t so good at remembering; in an argument or even in an email, it is not always helpful to bring up the entire history of how we got to this place, nor every detail of what others said and did, going back … well, too far!
This may explain a well-known teaching, usually attributed to Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), that the holidays of Purim and Yom Kippur (also called Yom Ha-Kippurim) are intimately related. Both are about remembering. During the High Holy Days, the Book of Remembrance is opened; it is the local, royal version of this book that King Ahasuerus reads from in the Purim story; and this Shabbat is the Sabbath of Remembrance.
Yet both days also are about forgetting — on Yom Kippur, we ask God’s forgiveness as we forgive ourselves and one another; on Purim, in the course of celebration, it is a mitzvah to forget the difference between Mordechai and Haman, who is right and who is wrong.
We will remember again the next day; but the experience of letting go and of forgetting can serve us as well as remembrance as we move toward whatever the future may hold.
Be the first to comment!