I have no trouble recalling the phone number of my best friend from kindergarten (who moved out of that house and changed phone numbers almost 25 years ago). I can picture where each person slept in my bunk at camp in 1984. But ask me for even a close relative’s phone number and more than likely their number has been relegated to speed dial status or is dialed by simply scrolling through the caller ID. Today we get automatic birthday reminders thanks to Google calendar or Facebook. And I call my children by the wrong names each day, despite them being five years apart and opposite genders (this I have heard is not memory-related, but I figured everyone can relate).
Shabbat Zachor, observed this week, raises the difficulties about memories that we should have, yet did not experience. We have no active memory of the episodes of our ancestors, but the commandment placed upon us is to recall an act of evil that requires us to remember, erase, and then not forget, all at the same time, despite not being present.
God presents us with a conundrum (Deuteronomy 25: 17-19):
1) remember that which Amalek did to the Israelites;
2) erase the name of the Amalek from this earth;
3) don’t forget.
Our challenge: If we are told to never forget, how can we obliterate the name of the Amalekites and still remember each year that which occurred?
Why are we instructed to inflict such damage on the tribe of Amalek after the fact and thousands of years later? We are not commanded to blot out the names of other Israelite enemies such as the Romans (who destroyed the Temple) or the Egyptians (who enslaved the Israelites). According to the Torah, the Amalekites inflicted more suffering on the Israelites than these other nations. Amalek is mentioned with such venom because they were a people who did not fear God (Deuteronomy 25:18). Our other enemies were nations whose values and principles were faith-based (albeit not in our God). The Amalekites were different.
Perhaps it was this lack of a higher power that allowed the Amalekites to target the stragglers and easy prey at the rear of the caravan. It would seem that the other enemies of the Israelites fought honorably because they were nations steeped in religious values. When we are commanded to erase the name of Amalek from under the heavens, it is physical in nature. We are to strip away any reminders of Amalek by destroying their possessions so nothing physical of the Amalekites remains to recall their existence. Blotting out Amalek does not mean we forget; even without the physical reminders we will still recall Amalek since we will always retain those memories. This is true for all episodes throughout our history. Despite the expulsions, destructions, or near-annihilation of our people through the years, we still have collective memory.
Our memory and ability to not forget and to actively remember is the way we resolve the conundrum of Shabbat Zachor. There are no pop-up reminders and no YouTube tutorials to help us figure out the next steps. Each of us has to figure out the answer for ourselves. Shabbat Zachor is about Amalek and what they did to our ancestors. But it is also about the importance of God and religion in our lives and the lives of others. By our leading God-fearing lives or a life of religious principles, the world can be a place guided by morals and idealism. Amalek and his nation, as we are reminded to recall this week, epitomize the absence of those values.