“And it will be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17)
So we read on the Shabbat before Purim, the Shabbat when we remember the gratuitous hatred shown to the Children of Israel as they fled from Egypt, echoing the hatred shown by Haman, said to be descended from the Amalakites, and we remember too the gratuitous hatred shown to Jews ever since.
It is a text which has come to be something of an emblem for Jews – the act of remembering, so sacred to our tradition, is to be used in this one case to blot out the individuals concerned, to erase their names from history.
As Jews we fear only one thing – we fear disappearing entirely, so that no trace of us is found. One thinks of Isaiah’s phrase, poignantly taken up by the holocaust remembrance centre in Israel – “I will give in My house and within My walls a monument and a memorial (yad v’shem) better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off. (56:5). Yad v’shem – a hand and a name.
Almost everything we do as Jews is in some way about remembering, and what we remember can be linked to two grand themes – Creation and Exodus/Redemption. All our festivals, whether agricultural in their origins or not, are linked to Creation and to Redemption – think of Pesach, Redemption of our people and Creation of peoplehood. Shavuot, building on Pesach, brings us the meaning of our Redemption – Torah. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the cycle of time, a new start which may yet lead us to Redemption, Yom Kippur helps us leave behind and create again. Succot is of course Creation led, with the underlying theme that our Redemption can come only from God, Simchat Torah neatly begins with the almost – Redemption of the Jewish people and focuses us again into the Creation story. Chanukah and Purim, the two post biblical festivals are both about Redemption too, with the possibilities of starting again afresh.
In our rich and complex Jewish tradition, we constantly and ritually remember the two experiences which mould us – the Creation which we experience newly every day, and the Redemption to which we are committed to work. We remember where we come from and where we are going to. That is our most sacred behaviour. And so it is particularly shocking to be told to remember so as to be sure to erase all memory.
Such an instruction is a creative betrayal of that which we hold most sacred. Nothing could be more designedly dumbfounding, more completely against our instincts. Our whole imperative is to remember so as not to lose completely.
Yet the special reading on Shabbat Zachor, designed to emphasise the response to Purim which will shortly follow, tells us that not everything or everyone should be remembered, that there are certain events the enormity of which means that they must be buried away forever. They are beyond our capacity to deal with, beyond our ability to create anew or to bring to Redemption. Few and far between – one thinks inevitably of the go’el who would not marry Ruth for the sake of his descendents, and who is named only Poloni ben Poloni – Mr X – in the text – these events where enforced erasing of the memory of a human being serve to point up the importance of conserving the memory. Shabbat Zachor says it all – Shabbat Remember!
Nowadays we have so much to remember – and extra days have been added to our calendar with Yom ha Shoah, and Yom ha Atzma’ut, the depths and heights of the last century. We are programmed to remember, to allow history to live again in us. We just have to ask ourselves what we should be remembering, and how.
The text we read as part of Shabbat Zachor begins “And it will be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget”, places the enforced forgetting and erasing in a context – it begins with a future time “It will be”. This reminds us of one very important lesson – we don’t have to worry yet about what we might erase or forget, that will be for the unspecified future. Right now our task is to remember and to document and to keep alive, it is not, absolutely not, to do anything else.