What We Are Asked to Remember

Tetzavveh | Shabbat Zakhor By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Mar 11, 2006 / 5766 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Guest Author: Rabbi Yehoshua Aizenberg

Two Sabbaths ago, we celebrated Shabbat Shekalim, the first of four special Sabbaths preceding Pesah. This coming Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, always comes right before the Purim celebration.

Shabbat Zachor takes on its special identity from the extra maftir section that will be read from a second Torah scroll, the concluding verses of the portion Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 25:17–19). The text begins with the word zachor (remember) — thus the name of this Shabbat — and it concludes with the admonition “lo tishkach” (“forget this not”). As the eleventh-century Spanish biblical commentator Moshe ben Jacob Ibn Ezra points out, beginning and end work together, and “forget this not” comes to reinforce the call to “remember.”

What are all these warnings to remember and not to forget all about? They refer to the narrative in Exodus 17:8–14 when the Amalekites, a tribe of nomads inhabiting the Negev and the Sinai Peninsula, made a surprise rear attack on the famished and exhausted Israelites not long after they fled Egypt. The attack was deemed especially reprehensible since the Amalekites directed their onslaught upon the stragglers, the elderly, and the infirm, without any provocation on the Israelites’ part. Forced to fight its first war of survival — which it won — Israel was admonished not only never to forget the Amalekites’ treachery, but also to “blot out Amalek’s memory… from under Heaven.” In the haftarah for this Shabbat, taken from the book of I Samuel (15:2–34), we learn that these words were understood quite literally. Our rabbis instructed us to dwell on these readings most particularly on the Shabbat preceding Purim because Mordechai’s lineage was traced to the line of King Saul’s father, and just as Saul defeated Amalek and its king, Agag, so Mordechai foiled the plots of Haman “the Agagite” (Esther 2:5, 3:1,10).

What I would like to pursue here is the Torah’s repeated emphasis on remembering and memory, stated so emphatically in these verses of Ki Tetzei. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi wrote forcefully in his classic Zachor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, the Hebrew Bible’s “injunctions to remember are unconditional, and even when not commanded, remembrance is always pivotal. Altogether the verb zakhar appears in its various declensions… no less than one hundred and sixty-nine times… As Israel is enjoined to remember, so it is adjured not to forget. Both imperatives have resounded with enduring effect among the Jews since biblical times” (5).

The insistent injunction to remember and not to forget, a mitzvah that the Jewish people have so consistently made part of their culture and religious practice, has not necessarily been part of other peoples’ weltanschauung. Indeed, some nations are still struggling to find ways and create rituals that will aid in the process of remembering. Take, for example, Argentina, the country of my birth. Thrust into deep political conflict and widespread violence, a military coup shook Argentina in March 1976 — with authoritarian military rule lasting until December 1983. The government, defining itself as leading a “process of national reorganization,” implemented a systematic policy of overt and clandestine repression, particularly the infamous “disappearances,” using terror as the basic tactic with which to handle the political conflict and wipe out existing opposition. A reliable estimate speaks of 30,000 people “disappeared” in Argentina. Uruguay and Chile are struggling with similar legacies of horror.

A decade later, in March 1992, a van loaded with explosives and suicide bombers demolished the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. In July 1994, another car bomb thrust into the headquarters of AMIA (Argentine Jewish Mutual Association), taking not only eighty-four lives, one of them the wife of our Rabbinical Assembly colleague Angel Kreiman, but also destroying a pivotal institution and repository of one hundred years of Jewish life in Argentina. The ferocity of all these attacks against innocent civilians was no less cruel and unprovoked than what the Amalekites of old brought upon the ancient Israelites.

On the wall facing the street of the AMIA’s new building — rebuilt on the same site — there is an ordinary plank fence. Painted in black are the names of the victims and the words “justicia y memoria,” “recordar el dolor que no cesa,” that is, “justice and memory,” and “remember the pain that never stops.” After all these tragedies, the “disappeared,” and the bombing victims, how are Argentines, Jews and non-Jews, supposed to remember? As my wife, Edna, asked in an article she wrote on the topic entitled “Making Monuments in Argentina, a Land Afraid of Its Past,” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 21, 2002): “In the face of so many killed, so many bereaved, so many culpable, what should we remember or forget? And who should decide — the state, the general public, the families and survivors? What kind of memorials — monuments, gardens, plazas — can best carry the burden of active and vigilant memory?”

Our religious tradition of “remember/forget not” may offer some answers to these questions. It will not only be the monuments that are being erected that will perpetuate memory, although even some of these are finding inspiration in Jerusalem’s Western Wall, in Yad Vashem’s tree-lined remembrance boulevard, and in congregational memorial plaques — all part of the Jewish repertoire of remembering at holy ruins and sacred forests. Memorial rituals, such as public yortsayts on the anniversary of the tragedy, are another way of ensuring that the innocent victims will not be forgotten. Such gatherings have been taking place under the auspices of groups such as Memoria Activa (Active Memory), a Jewish organization that assembles relatives and friends of victims of the AMIA bombing. Memoria Activa’s public yortsayts incorporate a blend of allusive readings, calling out the names of each of the victims, lighting candles and the traditional memorial liturgy. It is an example to non-Jewish groups and Argentine society at large. As Yerushalmi noted, the past has to be actively transmitted to the next generation. Argentina will have to create good transmitters and open receptors, ready to accept what is told to them, thus making sure that the cruel past will not die with those who experienced it. Jewish Argentines are at the forefront of this effort. Keeping memories alive will insure that those guilty of the unspeakable crimes will be brought to justice and, even more importantly, that similar crimes will not be repeated.

This devar Torah, “looking south of the border,” is dedicated to the forthcoming Rabbinical Assembly convention, March 19–23, that will take place in Mexico City. This is the first RA convention to take place in Latin America.

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.