Memory is at the very core of our identities. Jewish memory is both personal and communal, from daily Kaddish for a loved one who has left this world to remembering the highs and lows in Jewish history. Memory is a generative act — creating, sustaining and re-creating our identity aligned with our most precious values.
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembering. It falls every year on the Shabbat before Purim. So what is so important that we remember? On Shabbat Zachor we read: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of G-d, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). Like Haman of the Purim story, Amalek has become the symbol for all those who seek to harm Jews, destroy the Jewish community or hurt the stragglers in society.
It is not the most uplifting of all passages from the Torah. So why take the time to read it? Rabbi Simcha Bunem (a Polish Chasidic leader, 1765–1827) had the same question. He notes that Amalek’s tactic was to prey on the vulnerable margins of the group, teaching that, “Amalek couldn’t have triumphed and killed so many Israelites had they not separated from the group. …Rather, whenever we have group cohesion, then Amalek is not able to conquer them.”
Rabbi Simcha teaches that when we separate ourselves from the community, everyone is weakened — and hatred and destruction gain the upper hand. Today, our communities run the risk of being hollowed out. We might be more connected virtually on social media, but we are more isolated in real life. And so, we forget. We forget how to live in relationship with others who think differently, who love differently and, especially, who vote differently. Times like these make it easy for Amalek to rise again — through the specter of alienation, hatred and dehumanization. When we forget, we become vulnerable to those who would use our fears against us for their own political gain.
Memory is central to our process of defining and redefining our community. We need to remember how to continually and faithfully bear the burden of one another’s needs. We need to remember humility; to lower the volume on our own needs, fears and suffering; and to listen to the narrative of another. Shabbat Zachor reminds us of the central role that memory plays in our lives, both psychologically and communally.