The Vort – Parashat Zachor

The Vort this week is brought to you by Alana Vincent. Alana is from a mixed religious background, which resulted in the sort of confused childhood that prompts a great deal of religious study. As a result, she is currently awaiting the examination of her doctoral thesis on memory, identity, and contemporary Judaism.

Remember what Amalek did on the road when you were brought forth from Egypt. Finding you on your journey, he struck at the stragglers, the feeblest of all that were faint and weary; he did not fear God. When the Lord your God grants you rest from the enemies that surround you, in the land that the Lord your God will give you to hold as your inheritance, you shall blot out the remembering of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget. – Parshat Zakhor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
“Every moment is two moments.” – Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

We’ve heard this story before, a few weeks ago, in Beshalach. We’ll hear it again, later on, in Ki Seitzei. It’s the same story, and yet not. It changes every time, sending a slightly different message depending on the context in which we hear it, but each repetition contains within itself echoes of all the other repetitions. This is especially important this week, when we call this passage by its first word: Zakhor. Remember.
We read Zakhor this week as one of four extra bits of Torah that are appended to the regular readings in the month before Passover. Taken together, these passages help promote reflection on the festival cycle that will commence in the following month—before we begin the journey that culminates in the covenant at Mount Sinai, we are reminded of how that covenant marks us as a distinctive people, with obligations to charity (as in last week’s reading, Shekalim), ritual purity (next week’s reading, Parah), the observance of sanctified time (HaChodesh), and remembrance (Zakhor).
Parshat Zakhor brings up two important (and interlinked) questions. It is a violent text, and contains what has usually been interpreted as a commandment to eternal war against the Amalekites (“blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven”); the violence is accentuated by this reading’s positioning on the Sabbath before Purim (which commemorates another encounter between the descendants of Israel and the descendants of Amalek). In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides identifies three types of religiously obligatory warfare: defensive war, war against the seven nations, and war against Amalek (MT, Hilkhot melakhim, 5:1). He makes clear that rules for war against the seven nations are merely theoretical, as “their memory has long perished” (MT, Hilkhot melakhim, 5:4). War against Amalek, however, he treats as an ongoing concern. Later rabbis, up to the present day, have also tended to speak of Amalek as a contemporary enemy, a presence still needing to be blotted out from under the heavens.
The violence of the text is troubling to fuzzy-hearted progressives like myself precisely because of the way it resonates into the present, the way that there is always a new Amalek lurking around the corner—and the unexpected forms that Amalek might take. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, writing in the generation following the German Reform movement, identified Amalek as the worldliness that tempted Jews away from Torah, pointing a not terribly well disguised finger towards the Reformers; Rabbi David Einhorn, writing a few decades later, in Philadelphia, suggested that Amalek lurked in the literalist Biblical interpretation that lent an air of divine sanction to the practice of slavery, pointing an even more obvious finger towards the American Orthodox community. And that was only the nineteenth century—I’ll leave poking around on the internet to see how Amalek-rhetoric has evolved into the twenty-first century as an exercise for anyone bored enough to wade through that much sludge. Trust me, it’s not pretty.
This resonance points to the second question brought up in Parshat Zakhor—and, I believe, the more important one for this week’s repetition of the Amalek story: What does it mean to remember? How on earth am I supposed to remember something that happened thousands of years ago, to someone else? How can we both remember and blot out the remembrance of Amalek? Why go through such terrible mental contortions at all—isn’t it better to just forget?
Next month, each of us will be commanded to regard ourselves as though we personally came out of Egypt; the month after that, we will celebrate Shavuot as though we each were personally present at the formation of the covenant. But it begins this week, with two impossibly contradictory commandments, and a story we can’t quite remember but are forbidden to forget.

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