Shabbat Zachor, Purim: Remember

This Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim, is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. We read a special Maftir (a special additional Torah reading) called Parshat Zachor, the Portion of Remembrance. Reading Parshat Zachor, according to some authorities, is a Torah based commandment, a Mitzvah Doraytah, that we are each obligated to fulfill by hearing the entire reading without interruption (Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 685:7). It is, of course, important to hear the Torah at its regular times, and every Jewish community is obligated to provide a public Torah reading for its members (Ma’aseh Rav Section 175). What is it about Parshat Zachor, however, that requires from us the heightened obligation that each and every individual Jew must hear this reading without interruption? What is unique about Parshat Zachor? What are we supposed to remember?

Parshat Zachor tells the story of the Amalekites. According to Devarim (Deuteronomy) Chapter 25 Lines 17 to 19 the Amalekites attacked Israel from behind as they traveled across the desert from Egypt to the land of Israel. Who was behind? Who was in the back? The weak, the sick and the physically challenged. For their cowardly attack on this group of highly vulnerable individuals, the Amalekites are considered to be the paradigm of evil and the arch enemy of the Jewish People.

The Torah therefore commands us to blot out the memory of Amalek. The Torah, however, also commands us not to forget Amalek. There is no nation of Amalek in today’s world. The only reason they exist is because we remember them. If we were to forget about the Amalekites, they would cease to exist. The dual Mitzvah of blotting out and not forgetting presents a contradiction. How can God command us to blot out the memory of Amalek and at the same time command us to not forget them?

How can we explain this contradiction? Perhaps the Mitzvah to blot out the memory of Amalek and simultaneously remember them is not to be taken literally. It is, rather, about conscience raising. While the actual people known as Amalek no longer exist, the concept of Amalek is, unfortunately, alive and well. Many people today and throughout history have embodied the concept of Amalek. The point of the story is that we need to remember that there is evil in the world and that we are obligated to stand up to evil, to oppose it, and to refuse to tolerate it.

What is the specific nature of evil in the story of Amalek? Let us answer this question by posing three other questions: Why did the Israelites leave the weakest individuals in the rear? Why did they leave them open to attack? Why did they not position them in a place where they could be protected?

The commentary the Iturei Torah says:

If the community of Israel had not forgotten these stragglers, but rather, had brought them close under the wings of God’s Presence in order to return them underneath the clouds of glory, that they would be together with all the house of Israel, then Amalek would not have overcome them and beaten them. But because these stragglers were left behind, that is, you let them be left behind and you forgot them… this is the forgetting. The people of Israel were “weary, tired and not God-fearing” and forgot these brothers and sisters so Amalek was able to cut them off. Therefore, the Torah commands us to remember Amalek. And with this, warned us never again to forget our brothers and sisters in need of support and help, keeping them within the camp. Never Forget.

This understanding of the text, forces us to think about what our responsibilities are towards the weakest amongst us. We must realize that we as individuals and as a society often leave the weakest behind. There are also times that it is not the weakest that we leave behind; sometimes we leave behind people who are just experiencing challenges.

A glaring example is the silence of the world during the Shoah (Holocaust) when the world left European Jewry behind. The world has not improved much since the Shoah. During the slaughters in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia we left our fellow human beings behind. In Darfur today we continue, shamefully, to leave our fellow human beings behind.

Leaving people behind occurs not only in the context of the cataclysmic issue of genocide. When a school, be it public, private, Jewish or another religious affiliation, does not provide appropriate services for children with special needs, we leave them behind. When a synagogue does not make the proper adjustments for people with disabilities (both visible and invisible disabilities), we are leaving them behind. When a community does not provide for the homeless, the poor, and the hungry, we have left them behind.

Parshat Zachor is read the Shabbat before Purim. The stories are connected. Haman (the government official in the Purim story who wishes to destroy the Jewish people) is called Ha-agagee (Esther 3:1). Agag was the King of the Amalikites during the time of Shaul Hamelech (King Saul) (2 Shmuel/Samuel 15:8). This seems to suggest that Haman could have been an Amalikite. However, what is even more significant is the difference between the two stories. In Parshat Zachor the weak are left behind; as a result they are attacked by Amalek. In the Purim story when Haman plans to destroy the Jews, Esther with the encouragement of her cousin Mordechai risks her own life and speaks up for the Jewish nation. She does not leave her people behind. (Esther Chapters 4-9).

This week’s Parsha (Torah portion) is Parshat Tetzave; it describes the clothing that was worn by the Kohanim (Priests) in the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in which Bnai Yisrael (The Israelites) worshiped when they were traveling through the desert from Egypt to Israel. The Kohain Gadol (High Priest) wore a breast plate on his chest. It was called the Choshen Mishpat, the Breastplate of Judgment. The Choshen Mishpat had two purposes: 1. It helped the Beit Din (The Court) to achieve Kaparah (Atonement) if they made an incorrect decision. 2. It gave answers on important national questions. Essentially the Choshen Mishpat played an important role in achieving justice. Today, we do not have the Choshen Mishpat. Instead we have to look within our hearts, our minds and our souls to bring justice to the world. Parshat Zachor should make us think about how at times, we leave people behind. Think of situations in life where you as an individual or you as a member of society leave people behind. Then think about what you can do, to move these people up to a place of security, protection and love. By doing this, we will help in some small way to bring justice to the world.

 

“Remember” is first song on the second side of the album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. This was John Lennon’s first solo album. It came out in 1970. Previous to this album, he collaborated with his wife Yoko Ono on three experimental albums. Rolling Stone magazine in 2003 ranked it #22 on their The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. The album was recorded at Abbey Road Studios during September and October 1970. A number of interesting and talented musicians played on the album including Ringo Starr and Phil Spector. Following the brake up of the Beatles in April of 1970, John Lennon did Primal Therapy with Arthur Janov for four months in Los Angeles. Janov’s approach to therapy involved remembering and almost reliving repressed traumas from childhood. This experience strongly influenced the album and particularly the song “Remember”. This is the reason I chose this song for the title for this week’s article. In essence the Mitzvah of Parhsat Zachor is to remember. The experience of confronting memories will in some way transform us and we will thus transform the world. I bless you all that the experience of remembering truly transforms you this Shabbat.