Parashat Vayikra/Zachor: Remembering the past, transforming the present

Parashat Vayikra/Zachor: Remembering the past, transforming the present

Rabbi Lindsey Healey-Pollack

Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, Englewood, Conservative

At the time of this writing, the eyes of the world are watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Even as we witness the events as they unfold in real time, the past makes its way into the present. As we try to understand and process what is occurring in Ukraine today, journalists, political commentators, and others readily draw connections and comparisons to the history of the region.

Those of us in the Jewish community are particularly attuned to our memory of violence against the Jewish communities of Ukraine, including members of our own families. The memory of pogroms and the Shoah are alive for us and shape our response to what is occurring now. The situation is new, but it touches on and activates our deepest memories. The present is always infused with the past.

In addition to our weekly Torah reading from parashat Vayikra, this Shabbat we read a special section as we prepare for Purim:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey as you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

This passage is the source for the practice of making noise to blot out the name of Haman, a descendent of Amalek, during the megillah reading. But alongside the instruction to blot out or erase Amalek’s name, we receive a dual commandment about memory. The passage opens with “zachor,” remember what Amalek did, and concludes by telling us “Do not forget!”

But what is it exactly that we are meant to remember? And is there a difference between remembering and not forgetting?

Remembering requires us to actively recall. In this case we are asked to remember what Amalek did to our ancestors when they were in a particularly vulnerable state. By attacking the rear, Amalek specifically targeted those who were weakest — children, the elderly, and the ill. We remember in order to honor the memory of our ancestors, loved ones, and other victims of violence. We remember to remain aware and alert to the dangers that exist.

But what of not forgetting? In addition to highlighting the actions of Amalek, the Torah specifically calls our attention to the state our ancestors were in at the time of the attack. We are asked to identify with how it felt to be targeted at our most vulnerable.

Like many of the Torah’s commandments, this passage is future-directed. They are instructions for the society that will be built in the Land of Israel. This is similar to the repeated reminder throughout the Torah to care for the stranger and the most vulnerable because we were once strangers and enslaved in the land of Egypt. We are meant to take the lessons of the past and use them as guideposts in creating a just society.

The Torah is concerned not only with recalling past injustices done to us, but with ensuring that they don’t happen again to others. The examples of Egypt and of Amalek are presented as models of what not to do. Once you achieve relative security, the Torah teaches, do not abuse the power you hold over others. That is what we are meant not to forget. We are not only victims of violence. The Torah brings a keen awareness of human nature — of just how easy it can be for us to misuse our power once we have it. Our own suffering does not automatically transform us into empathetic human beings who treat others with dignity and compassion at all times. We need reminders to remember, and not to forget.

Like an echo, the past reverberates with us after it is gone. It is important to remember our history — to acknowledge pain and suffering and to honor victims of violence. We remember not in order to dwell on the past, to hold a grudge, or take vengeance. Rather, the Torah encourages us to move forward with the past alongside us. We can integrate our history, even the painful parts, and use our memory to transform the present and future into the world we wish to live in.

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