Remembering to Forget

| Shabbat Zakhor By :  Andrew Shugerman Posted On Mar 3, 2012 / 5772 | Midrash: Between the Lines | Holidays

אמר ריש לקיש מדכרין ומניחין מדכרין ומשחקין

מדכרין ומשחקין, פקדתי את אשר עשה עמלק (ש”א טו, ב). מדכרין ומשחקין (דברים כה) זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק מדכרין ומניחין איש יהודי היה מדכרין ומשחקין איש צר ואויב מדכרין ומניחין כי מרדכי היהודי מדכרין ומשחקין כי המן בן המדתא

Leviticus Rabbah 32:6 (ed. Margoliyot)
Resh Lakish taught: Some we remember and bless; others we remember and curse . . .
Remembered and blessed: “[Thus said the Lord of Hosts:] I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel . . . ” (1 Sam.15:2) Remembered and cursed: “Recall what Amalek did to you . . . ” (Deut. 25:17) Remembered and blessed: “A man, a Jew named Mordecai . . . ” (Esther 2:5). Remembered and cursed: “A man both adversary and enemy [is this evil Haman!]” (Esther 7:6). Remembered and blessed: “For Mordecai the Jew [ranked second only to King Ahaseurus] . . . ” (Esther 10:3) Remembered and cursed: “For Haman son of Hammedatha, [the foe of all the Jews] . . . ” (Esther 9:24)

How does one recall something that we are ultimately supposed to forget? That is one of the great paradoxes found in the Torah reading for Shabbat Zakhor and later reflected in a rabbinic tradition that stems from the midrash above.

Concluding the special maftir reading is the dual command that “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deut. 25:19). While many commentators acknowledge that this verse ostensibly presents a contradiction, the 3rd-century sage Resh Lakish goes even further in highlighting the strange linguistic resemblance between the positive and negative aspects of Purim and its biblical prehistory. He first juxtaposes the identical phrase used to describe God’s punishment of Amalek (in our haftarah this week) and the commandment that establishes its legal basis. The midrash then compares similar language used to illustrate the characters and fates of Purim’s hero and villain, Mordecai and Haman. Resh Lakish cites five other instances in a midrashic litany demonstrating the yin-and-yang effect of blessings and curses.

One school of ancient rabbinic thought ran wild with this notion of the symbiosis of good and evil. Rava, another prominent talmudic sage, taught that “it is the duty of a man to get drunk on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai'” (BT Megillah 7b). This custom might seem completely ridiculous if it were not highly illustrative of how one can personally experience the blurring of moral extremes in these responses to how “the opposite happened” (Esther 9:1).

For those who disapprove of this approach, one Hasidic tradition offers a radical alternative to drunkenness in one’s grappling with these Purim paradoxes. The Ma’or va’Shemesh rereads the phrase zakhor et asher asah lekha Amalek to mean “recall that you made yourself Amalek”; internalizing the polarity of good and evil in the world, we must soberly assess the extent to which we are so often our own worst enemies. By grappling with that challenge, let us emerge as heroes, not villains.