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The Power of Memory

The Power of Memory

Parshat Zachor

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It isn't mere coincidence that every totalitarian regime in history, as the first step in cementing its hold on the people under its rule, has first exerted control over their memory. In wiping out both the memory of certain past achievements, beliefs, even peoples, along with the memories of their own atrocities, they seek to control what their citizens know, believe, feel, and hope for. Ultimately, the one who controls a nation's memory controls also what that nation will be willing to fight for, and what they will have the capacity to struggle against.

We tap into the capacity for miracles in our every day lives

Memory plays a very central role in Judaism. We have an enormous collection of commandments which we refer to as "eidim"- witnesses. It is a Divine commandment to bear witness to the past and to the way it shapes present reality - and in so doing, to recognize that we are able to bear witness also to a delightful future. We make kiddush on Friday nights as witness to many things - that G‑d created the world, that He established the concept of spiritual rest, sanctified the seventh day, and that He redeemed us from slavery in Egypt. We eat matzah on Passover as witness to the matzah we ate when leaving Egypt, and move into foliage-topped huts every Sukkot as witness to the way G‑d sheltered and protected us as we journeyed into the wilderness. The Giving of the Torah, the conquering of Jericho, the Passover sacrifice, as well as the destruction of the First and Second Temple, the siege of Jerusalem, and many other events are re-experienced as we move through the cycle of the Jewish calendar each year. And as we recall and re-live these events, refining our minds and souls, we tap into the capacity for miracles in our every day lives, we remember Who is really running the world, we search for the blessings hidden within curses, the future hidden within our past.

Such is the power of Jewish memory that upon witnessing a village of Jews observing Tisha B'Av, the day of mourning marking the destruction of the Holy Temple, Napoleon is said to have remarked, "You will surely merit to see your Temple rebuilt."

On the Shabbat before Purim, we read the Torah portion that describes our encounter with Amalek, the epitome of evil and Israel's archenemy, as we left Egypt. It is known as Parshat Zachor, the Torah reading of "remember."

"Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt; how he met you on the way, and cut down all the weak who straggled behind you, when you were weary and exhausted; and he did not fear G‑d. Therefore, when the L-rd your G‑d will relieve you of all your enemies around you, in the Land which the L-rd your G‑d gives you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget." Deuteronomy 25:17-19

Amalek attacked us, with unspeakable cruelty - striking at the weak and vulnerable - at a time when the rest of the world was still speaking with awe of the miracles done to redeem us from slavery. The word used for this clash can mean both that Amalek 'encountered' us as we journeyed and that Amalek 'cooled us off.' The second translation is two-fold in its implications: first, that Amalek 'cooled off' the feelings of awe and fear of the Jewish people which were then shared by every nation in the world, thus opening up the world to the possibility of anti-semitism and the oppression of the Jews, and secondly (and closely related), he 'cooled off' our fervor for serving G‑d. In Hebrew, the word amalek also shares the same numerical value as the word safek, "doubt."

Amalek seeks to tamper with the pure faith that is part of the structure of the Jewish soul

In introducing a sense of doubt into our collective and individual psyches, Amalek seeks to tamper with the pure faith that is part of the structure of the Jewish soul and the Divinely inspired Jewish intellect. As we set out towards Mount Sinai, Amalek attempted to diminish the faith and passion with which we would accept and fulfill the Torah.

He was attacking an essential component of Jewish memory - the ability to know on a gut level that just as G‑d has been with us all along, through slavery and unspeakable suffering as well as through better times, so too He is present in our lives now and always will be.

We are taught that each and every day, each one of us must see him or herself as going out of Egypt, a place synonymous with "constraints" and "limitations." If the journey we are embarking on is one that will truly lead to a deeper, more meaningful relationship with G‑d and a way of life more in tune with the Divine (a personal Exodus), then there will certainly be protests - loud, angry, protests - from the "other side."

Amalek is identified with, among other things, these internal and external obstacles towards genuine growth. As the first to attack the newly redeemed Jewish nation, he is also the culprit behind any lack of will and desire to affirm our existence, and the rightness of our existence, as a distinct people. Certainly, the desire to fully identify with one's fellow Jews is a component of individual and communal redemption, and thus a favorite target of Amalek's attacks.

Of the six events which we are commanded to remember each day, only Parshat Zachor is read aloud in synagogue each year, and it is considered one of the few Torah portions that each and every Jew should be present to hear. It is only through steadfast memory of our historical confrontation with Amalek that we gather the strength to confront Amalek now, ensuring that we wipe out all Amalikite tendencies.

The battle against Amalek is not only a personal, internal one

Once a year, we gather in the synagogue and hear Parshat Zachor read out loud because doing so strengthens each of us in our personal struggles, but also because the battle against Amalek is not only a personal, internal one. There is such a thing as evil in this world. There is such a thing as tyranny. We must always remember our obligation, together with our capacity, to eradicate it.

Yet, the Torah never intended that this memory should be passive. Each year, the Rebbe would urge us to utilize the power of Parshat Zachor in turning the darkness of this world into light through increasing in Torah and good deeds.

Parshat Zachor is always read on the Shabbat preceding Purim. In a year like this one, when Purim takes place on the day immediately after Shabbat, the ultimate victory of light and our ability to bring that victory about through good deeds is especially emphasized. This year we will go straight from hearing Parshat Zachor to a day filled with additional mitzvot, commandments, and in particular mitzvot connected to joy, love for a fellow Jew, and unity among Jews - the most potent weapons against Amalek.

The Rebbe would often conclude his talks on Purim by saying, "May we go from redemption to redemption - from the redemption of Purim [when we were saved from annihilation by an Amalekite] to the final redemption."

It seems there is the beginning of this "transition" from one redemption to another in the Shabbat preceding Purim, the Shabbat of "remember." There is a saying: "In memory lies the secret of redemption." How do we access this all-important secret? We must heed memory's call to action.

Chana Kroll is an alumna of Machon Chana Yeshiva for Women in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Prior to moving to New York, she taught at a boarding school/shelter for runaways and young people whose families were homeless.
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Discussion (2)
March 19, 2009
thank you
To thank you for the words that inspire good actions. Thank you for helping us to see that our G-d is a living and helping Creator who loves us and stands by us. May G-d of Israel help us and all little children who suffer in this life. Our world is so beautiful - it is a living work of art to enjoy in all forms.
Bless you to continue your good words which inspire us.
Ms Starr
Frankfort, KY/USA
February 26, 2007
We should know who our friends and enemies are and deal with each in the proper manner. We should be careful who we place our trust in, family, friends, community leaders, etc. And We should be careful of the Hamans of today- like the leaders of Iran, Iraq, and other trouble spots of the world.
Anonymous
Brooklyn, NY
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