Memory is a terrible thing to lose, a fact that becomes painfully clear when you reach middle age. But forgetting can have its uses as well. For one thing, it keeps the mind from being cluttered with irrelevant information. And memory loss can even be therapeutic—such as when we overlook past hurts and agree to forgive and forget. For survivors of trauma, the ability to let go of frightful memories is essential to the healing process.

One of the most traumatic events Memory is a terrible thing to losein early Jewish history was the ambush of Amalek on the newly liberated people, fresh out of Egypt. Amalek was the first nation that dared attack the Jews after G‑d miraculously redeemed them, and in their vulnerable state, this attack was particularly devastating. In this week’s Torah portion, we find a curious mitzvah: Remember to forget Amalek.

You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt . . . You shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. Do not forget!1

This mitzvah is one of the “Six Remembrances,” events recorded in the Torah that we are commanded to remember every day, including the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, and the Shabbat day of rest.2

If you are wondering how remembering an attack by Amalek fits in with remembering sanctified occasions such as the Shabbat and the exodus from Egypt, you’re not alone. The Midrash writes that after the commandment to remember Amalek was given, the Jews said to Moses: “One Scripture text says, ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,’ and it is written, ‘Remember what Amalek did unto you.’ How can both these texts be fulfilled?”3

The question the Jews were asking was: how can we keep such opposite thoughts in mind at the same time? Sanctifying the Shabbat helps to implant in our heart the awareness that G‑d is the Creator of all existence. Amalek, in contrast, is a nation that “knows its Creator and deliberately rebels against Him.”4 How can we remember the holiness of Shabbat at the same time that we call to mind the evil of Amalek?

And to this, Moses answered, “The glass of spiced wine is not to be compared to the glass of vinegar! One ‘Remember’ is in order to observe and to sanctify the Sabbath day, and the other ‘Remember’ is in order to destroy.”

Why does Moses compare the memory of Amalek to a glass of vinegar?

Vinegar on its own is excessively sour and not fit to drink. Mixed with other foods, however, it adds flavoring, and even has health benefits. Furthermore, since vinegar is derived from wine, it has some of the properties of the wine itself.

What this means in spiritual terms is that even an experience as sour as our encounter with Amalek has a source in holiness. In fact, the very existence of an entity that “knows its Creator and intentionally rebels against Him” is a testimony to G‑d’s omnipotence. G‑d created a world with dueling, conflicting powers to give us the opportunity to vanquish the evil and channel its energy to good.

This is why Moses compared both the Shabbat and Amalek to a glass. Both are vessels for containing G‑dly energy. However, the vessel of Shabbat, the “glass of spiced wine,” requires no special preparation. It is ready to drink as is. The cup of Amalek, on the other hand, is not a suitable container for G‑dliness until it undergoes some refinement—its tendency to rebel must be tempered and channeled appropriately. Then it, too, is a vessel for G‑dliness, with life-sustaining power of its own.

In the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi describes two types of delicacies: those that are sweet, and those that are sharp or sour, but when properly prepared can be tasty condiments.5 As it is written in Proverbs, “The L‑rd made everything for His praise—even the wicked man for the day of evil.”6 G‑d created a world with dueling, conflicting powersWhen the evil man repents for his evil and returns to G‑d, then the energy that he put into his wickedness becomes converted into holiness—the darkness of his past deeds becomes a greater light.

And this is how we can remember Shabbat and Amalek in the very same breath. On the one hand, celebrating Shabbat is a time to disconnect from worldliness for a short while. We might think that it would be best to let the memory of Amalek fade into the background for the time being. We want to enjoy our sweet wine with no taint of vinegar. Yet the power of Amalek is so great that it can disturb the tranquility of Shabbat—so even on Shabbat, we must be vigilant and protect ourselves against it.

On the other hand, there are times when we are not in a Shabbat mindset. Perhaps we are in a state when we are completely absorbed in the “Amalek” aspects of our lives—the pain, the turmoil and the trauma. We need no memory of Amalek, since it surrounds us constantly. In this situation, holding on to the memory of Shabbat will help us rise above our circumstances. It will even help us recognize that this period of evil that we are going through is temporary, and it, too, has a source in holiness. Life may have dealt us a glass of vinegar—but we can draw strength from it and turn that glass of vinegar into a life-sustaining brew.

(Based on an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likkutei Sichot, vol. 19, pp. 221–226.)