Parashat Ki Teitzei

The Paradox of Memory
By Rabbi Allen Darnov

It is amusing how Jews curse enemies by reciting the enemy’s name and then adding the phrase in Hebrew (or Yiddish) “may his name be blotted out” We might say something like “…that evil Hitler, may his name be blotted out!…” Amusing, because one cannot rub a name out of existence by making a point of mentioning it.

It seems that the impetus in Jewish life to remember is very strong – even stronger than the mitzvah to forget something evil. The result is a paradox. And the paradox is explicit, as a matter of fact, in Ki Tetze, this week’s Torah portion. On the one hand, the book of Deuteronomy commands us to rub out the memory of Amalek (25:19) much in the way that ancient Pharaohs would rub out the hieroglyph denoting a predecessor’s name, thus extinguishing memory of a forebear. Yet, only two verses before, the Torah had commanded Israel, “Always remember what Amalek did to you…” (25:17). The Hebrew verb used for the word “remember” in this verse is rendered as an infinitive absolute, a grammatical form elsewhere understood by the Rabbis as meaning “always remember” (Rashi to Ex 20:8).

This text from our portion is also read on the Shabbat before Purim, for this mitzvah applies directly to Purim, as well. We read the Scroll of Esther, using groggers to drown out the name of Israel’s nemesis, Haman ben Hammedatha. This is an effort to perform the mitzvah of blotting out the name of Amalek (Deut 25:19), Haman having descended from the Amalekite king Agag (Esth 3:1; 1 Sam 15). But how can we blot out the name of an arch-foe if we record it in a sacred scroll, the book of Esther, and make a holiday ritual of reading that scroll? It seems that Jews have trouble forgetting, even when we try.

Perhaps this is so because remembering is much too compelling a part of Jewish tradition. Jews are commanded to remember the Sabbath, and in doing so, to remember that God created the world (Exod 20:11). The historical festivals are based on memory of the exodus from Egypt (Exod 23:15; Lev 23:43; Deut 26:5-10), as are the commandments of tefillin and redemption of a first born son (Exod 13:9-16). The Torah instructs us to remember the commandments by attaching fringes to our garments (Num 15:39-40). The book of Deuteronomy commands us to remember standing at Sinai (4:9), that God sustained us through the wilderness wandering (8:2-18), and that we repeatedly provoked God during that period (9:7-12). We make a custom of remembering Jerusalem by crushing at glass at a wedding. The menorah reminds us of the miracle of Hanukkah. Even eating a sandwich serves the purpose of memory in Jewish tradition: the Passover Haggadah instructs us to eat two pieces of matzah with bitter herbs zekher le-veit ha-mikdash “as a reminder of the ancient temple” in Jerusalem.

Judaism also has a tradition of remembering martyrs and Jewish suffering, however painful it might be. The liturgical poem Eileh Ezkerah “These I will Remember,” recited in the traditional liturgy for Yom Kippur, recalls the Ten Sages put to death by the Romans to crush the Jewish rebellion. The Middle Ages began a tradition of recording names of Jewish martyrs and victims of the Black Death in community “memorial books” (J. D. Eisenstein, Otzar Yisrael, IV:230). Modern Jews have also acquired a new mitzvah regarding the darkness that fell over Europe in the 1930s and 40s: Zakhor “Remember.”

Remembering is a mitzvah because it gives life. Remembering our history and stories teaches us who we are, and that we should live lives of faith, justice and compassion. Remembering is therefore a step toward tikkun olam “perfecting the world.” A Hasidic master said, “Those who remember bring us closer to the messianic age.”

In 1986, the Yiddish author and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer spoke at The 92nd Street Y in New York City. A member of the audience asked him how the Jewish people survives, in spite of all its illnesses. Mr. Singer replied (I paraphrase), “The Jewish people have many illnesses, but lack of memory is not one of them. As long as the Jewish people can remember, they will survive all of their other illnesses. They will live forever.”


Rabbi Allen Darnov is on the AJR faculty.