One of the more curious mitzvot, not to mention difficult to perform, is the one which calls on us to expunge a particular memory from our national database of recollection.
“You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek.”
Now, I can understand a command to ignore or resist dwelling on a particular memory, but unless you’re into sci-fi or futuristic medical research, erasing a memory seems to border on the impossible.
As with many a difficult Biblical passage, Rashi graciously comes to the rescue with an elucidating comment. He explains that the command to destroy the remembrance of Amalek includes the act of eliminating their oxen and sheep, “so that the name of Amalek not be mentioned even with reference to an animal, in saying, ‘This animal belonged to Amalek.’”
In other words, Rashi is saying that the way to uproot a memory is to do away with all of the reminders that activate that memory—in this case the animals of Amalek that bring to mind their previous owners.
In the language of addiction recovery, the first step to kicking an addiction is to get rid of all triggers: alcohol, cigarettes, a computer or credit cards. Only then can one hope to regain control over their destructive behavior.
And the same is true for those hoping to overcome the anguish suffered by a failed relationship or a traumatic experience. Removing oneself from the person, place or thing that brought on heartache is often the first step towards healing.
Out of sight really is out of mind. And (practically speaking) out of mind really is out of memory.
In chassidic literature Amalek embodies not just an antagonistic physical nation that once was, but a perpetual spiritual enemy that still is—internal and constant.
Perhaps you will recognize Amalek as the “voice of reason,” or a tendency towards cynicism that tends to make itself heard especially loudly during moments of inspiration and fervor. The verses about Amalek say “that he happened upon you on the way,” asher korcha baderech, which, in translation, can also mean “he cooled you off.” Like an air conditioner on full blast, Amalek is committed to cooling off any “excessive” spiritual heat or passion that might lead to a more meaningful lifestyle.
Amalek’s coolness is the root of justification and doubt, the former conveniently applied to transgression and the latter to faith and good deeds.
So how does one “wipe out the memory” of the Amalek within?
Following Rashi’s formula, we must first identify the conditions that allow him to exist and be emboldened.
Aside for each person’s particular triggers, there are some general areas of weakness that are spelled out in the verse that describes Amalek’s crimes:
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you left Egypt . . .”
Taken literally, the verse refers to the unique challenge of travel, when one invariably finds him- or herself in a place where one is unknown. Especially when one travels alone, a sense of independence, freedom and anonymity can overwhelm and cloud one’s better judgment.
“On the way” can also refer to moments of instability in our lives, or when we find ourselves in temporary situations. Precisely then we are tempted to tell ourselves, “When things settle down, after achieving some semblance of normalcy, after creating a permanent space for myself, things will be different. I will be different.”
“And he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear” refers to the moments in our lives when we lag behind—when we are weakest emotionally, spiritually and morally. “Who even notices or cares about my lapses?” we might tell ourselves in moments of desperation. “I’m all alone on my arduous trek through life’s dusty, jagged passageways.”
Well, you are not entirely alone; you can count on Amalek to be there with you in your most vulnerable moments, prodding you on your way down (what might seem to be) the one-way road to despair.
“When you were faint and exhausted” describes another opportune moment for exploitation. Physical weakness and exhaustion leave us less in control of our faculties and less capable of making levelheaded decisions.
So the way to destroy the memory of Amalek and its obstruction towards meaningful living is to eliminate or circumvent the conditions and opportunities that allow it to exist in the first place.
In the words of one psychologist on the topic of addiction, “You need to recognize your danger zones. . . . A danger zone can be a particular time of day or your reaction to a particular circumstance. There are times that you’re more prone to indulge in your habit than others. Recognize what those times are, and do something that is incompatible with the addiction you’re trying to break.”
What’s in It for Me?
It’s true that the ultimate way to overcome a bad habit or addiction is to undergo an internal transformation, what they call in addiction recovery a “psychic change,” where one comes to recognize and tackle the practical, moral or spiritual destruction caused by the habit that needs kicking. But there is a step that must come first: the elimination of all habit-triggers and facilitators. The associations that are created by certain sights, sounds and smells should be avoided at all costs.
For, as the Talmud puts it, “It is not the mouse who steals, but the hole (it climbs through)!” Getting rid of the holes is one way to get rid of the mice.
(Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. 14, p. 86.)