Remembering to Forget (Shabbat Zachor)

Judaism has lots of interesting, unique, perhaps even esoteric rituals. But the most interesting that I've learned revolves involves a sofer, a Torah scribe. The ritual involves Amalek, an awful enemy of the Jewish people. Soon after the Exodus from Egypt, Amalek attacked the Israelites from behind, killing the elderly along with defenseless women and children. There is an incredibly amount of midrashic material on Amalek, especially considering the few brief passages that mention him by name.

But let us get back to the ritual I was speaking about: When a sofer begins to write a Torah, he takes a scrap of kosher k'laf, parchment, and writes the Hebrew word, Amalek. Immediately after inscribing the word, the sofer scribbles back and forth on the word until the word is illegible. Only then does he proceed to begin to write the Torah.

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Tonight is Shabbat Zachor - the Shabbat of memory. It occurs on the Sabbath before Purim. On this night, we read from Parashat Tzav, our current portion in Leviticus. But because this is the Shabbat before Purim, we also add an extra portion from Deuteronomy. The additional verses have to do with the aforementioned Amalek, and his heinous cruelty toward the Israelites.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt - how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when God grants you safety from all your enemies in the land that God is giving you, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

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Let's fast forward to Purim. The villain of the Purim story, Haman ... let's try that again ... Haman (pause for boos) is descended from Amalek. Our Megillah of Esther tells us that he is an Amalekite. And so, we also read these verses from Deuteronomy concerning Amalek.

You may know that the verb zachor - remember appears more than any other verb in our entire Torah. Our Torah scribe enacts this interesting ritual of writing Amalek's name and then crossing it for a few reasons. First, he is following the mitzvah of blotting out the memory of Amalek, much as we will do tomorrow when we talk about Ha ... I almost got you there.

But more importantly, the sofer does this so that he remembers that the Torah is a model for how to do good, and not evil.

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These Deuteronomy verses are very interesting. They ask us to remember what Amalek did to us, but they also urge us to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. We could argue that by writing Amalek's name, we are not blotting out his memory.

As we ponder these verses one day before celebrating the holiday of Purim, we think on this interesting interplay between the importance to remember the awful deeds of our enemies on the one hand and the desire to blot out their memories on the other. Just as the sofer intentionally writes Amalek's name just to cross it out, we too say Haman's name intentionally so that we can then drown it out with our shouts and our groggers.

We Jews have long memories. We reflect on creation, we remember our ancestors. We think back to the Exodus. But whereas we reflect on the past, we are not meant to dwell in the past. We remember Haman's cruelty, but we focus our rituals on celebrating our victory over him. We remember Amalek, but yet we focus on celebration, not tragedy, when we sing Mi Chamocha.

Shabbat Zachor reminds us that memory is important, but not more important than our present or future selves. As we go into our joyous holiday of Purim, that is something worth remembering.

Does Everything Happen for a Reason (Shmini)

Drawing Close to God (Vayikra)