Memory: Judaism’s Lifeblood

| Purim By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 2, 1996 / 5756 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

My father died 14 years ago. This week I will observe his Yahrzeit once again. The date of a Yahrzeit is determined by the day of death (not burial) according to the Hebrew calendar, a fact which means that the day varies from year to year in the English calendar. My father’s death occurred on the 8th of Adar, just one day after the day assigned by tradition to the death of Moses. Like Moses, my father was “a servant of God,” and I find comfort and meaning in the proximity of their Yahrzeits.

Yahrzeit triggers a flood of poignant personal memories. But embedded as it is in the grid of the Hebrew calendar, it also evokes associations that transcend the individual. In the case of my father, his Yahrzeit usually comes just prior to the Shabbat before Purim, which bears the special name of Shabbat Zakhor – the Sabbath of Remembrance. So the subject of memory in Judaism is very much in the air, enriching the thoughts that well up in me about my own roots.

Shabbat Zakhor draws its name from the first word of the passage in Deuteronomy (25:17-19) which we read after the completion of the regular parasha: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt (17).” We prepare ourselves for Purim by reading of Haman’s Amalekite ancestry, first in the wilderness of Sinai and then in the days of King Saul (the haftara).

I was born in Nazi Germany at a time when Haman’s 20th-century descendants moved to expel its terrified Jewish subjects whom they had just stripped of their citizenship. The original indictment of Mordecai’s people by Haman was still being hurled against the Jewish community in which my father served as rabbi: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm [King Ahasuerus], whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them (Esther 3:8).”

Put differently: though foreign and subversive, the Jews had managed to penetrate all sectors of national life without bringing any economic benefit to the country. One is startled by the ageless paradigmatic power of Haman’s charges. How short-lived the enlightened experiment to base Jewish life on inalienable human rights rather than on utilitarian sufferance!

The command to remember the assault of Amalek on Israel is recorded twice in the Torah. The passage in Exodus (17:8-16) we read a few weeks ago. But interestingly, it is not the one selected for reading on Shabbat Zakhor. I suspect the reason is that Deuteronomy stresses the depravity of the attack, while Exodus dwells primarily on the miracle of the victory. When Moses, with the help of his brothers, held his arms aloft, the tide of battle turned in Israel’s favor. In contrast, Deuteronomy informs us that the Amalekites were terrorists rather than soldiers: “…undeterred by fear of God, he [Amalek] surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear (25:18).”

The incident gave rise to one of the harshest injunctions of the entire Torah: to wipe out in due time the name of Amalek from the face of the earth. King Saul failed to comply fully when he had a decisive military edge over the Amalekites and the lapse in his obedience to God’s demand cost him his throne. Deuteronomy alone makes clear the gravity of Amalek’s crime. Without fear of God, Amalek had spurned the most basic tenets of human decency. To savage the least threatening and most innocent members of society placed Amalek beyond the pale of humanity. If Israel stands for the ultimate dominion of human virtue, Amalek symbolizes the darkness of the human heart. The contest never ends because our hearts remain divided.

Memory is the lifeblood of Jewish being. No word in the Hebrew language rings with greater resonance than “zakhor.” A flood of associations come to mind. We are bidden in the Ten Commandments to “remember (zakhor) the sabbath day and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8).” Moses adjures Israel in his great poetic peroration to place memory at the center of their consciousness: “Remember (zakhor) the days, consider the years of ages past; ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you (Deuteronomy 32:7).”

In truth, Judaism is one long and daring effort to shift the ground of religion from nature to history, from changes in the seasons of the year to turning points in the destiny of the nation.

Rosh Hashana, the least historical of Judaism’s holy days, is still called Yom ha-Zikaron (the day of remembrance) to underscore the role of memory in the process of introspection. And the word surfaces again slightly altered in the name of the memorial service for the dead, Yizkor (may God remember), at which time we are awash with particles from the past. With the title Zakhor of Professor Yosef Yerushalmi’s popular 1982 meditation on “Jewish history and Jewish memory,” the word has even entered the English language.

As this web of associations suggests, Judaism has not been absorbed exclusively with its calamities. Its preferred mode of organizing the past in the Middle Ages was in terms of the inner life, the names and books of leaders who were responsible for rejuvenating and transmitting the tradition. Only in the wake of the massive expulsions of Sefardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the last decade of the 15th century did Jewish chroniclers increasingly focus on the history of persecutions and martyrdom.

Yet the basic impulse of Jewish memory was to preserve the instances of creativity as well as of catastrophe. A single fast day would do to commemorate a long list of calamities, even if they did not all occur exactly on that day. On the principle that a day destined for mourning one tragedy could be expanded to include the memory of other tragedies, the Rabbis struggled to keep the calendar from being overshadowed by days of darkness and grief. Though that policy may have done some violence to the individuality of historical events, it surely did protect the balance necessary for psychic well-being. Would that we could reclaim that ancient wisdom for our own post-Holocaust era.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat T’tzavveh are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld