Sometimes We Need To Remember, And Sometimes We Need To Forget [Parshat Tetzaveh (Zachor) By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt — Deut 25:17

Memory is deceptive because it is coloured by today’s events — Albert Einstein

This week we remember. We remember Amalek. Like Holocaust memorial events around the world, with the slogan We Must Never Forget, once a year on this Shabbat we pay special attention to Parshat Zachor – a few verses from the end of Parshat Ki Tetzei, detailing the evil actions of a cold blooded enemy who attacked the weak; the women, children and stragglers of the nascent Jewish nation.

After Shabbat, as Purim begins, we will also remember the malevolent Haman, a rotten apple who never fell far from the Amalek family tree. Haman, advisor to the Persian monarch, loathed the Jews he governed so much that he came up with a Final Solution for them – one day in the year (chosen by drawing lots) when all Persian citizens were encouraged by royal decree to loot, pillage and kill their Jewish neighbours. Long before Kristallnacht and long before Nazi German came along with their ideas of a modern Aryan race, this advisor to the ruler of the Land of the Aryans (the etymological source of the name Iran) was plotting to eradicate the Jewish presence from the kingdom – at the time the largest empire the world had ever known.

Here’s something strange. The last verse of the Torah reading about Amalek tells us, “Wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens — you shall not forget!” The question of course is that by the very act of reading these words and marking it as a special annual event, we are the very ones perpetuating the memory of evil people.  Shouldn’t we just delete any mention of Amalek  from our calendar, and let them be rapidly forgotten?  We are talking about events that took place thousands of years ago!

Human memory is a curious thing. Our brains are hard-wired to provide maximal benefit to the body they belong to; this means that we remember things the way we want to remember them, not necessarily the way they really happened. Very often we forget things we saw, and we “remember” things we never saw at all, and this is when we are being honest with ourselves!

Professor Daniel Simons is an international expert on human perception, memory, and awareness – and the tricks our minds play on us. One of the experiments he documents was after the attacks on the World Trade Centre, NY on 9/11. This is the type of shocking event when we remember vividly where we were when we first heard, and whom we were with.  He wrote a detailed account as best he could, of what he saw and heard, and which people he shared the experience with. He then asked all of those people to write their experiences of the same events.  Amazingly, despite apparently vivid memories, there were many inaccuracies. People he thought were with him had been out of town, and one person who was with him all morning he had forgotten about entirely.

This is normal.  Our brains remember less than we think, and crucially we think we remember things much better than we really do.  [The skewing effect this must have on important witness testimony is frightening to contemplate.]  In other studies by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus,  she proved that it is fairly easy to implant childhood memories in people, who then treat these as real memories, genuinely believing that they really happened.

It is this weakness in our memories that allows dangerous fallacies like Holocaust revisionism to take root. Originally dismissed as beyond the pale and not worth responding to, slowly we are coming around to the fact that even moving testimony from eye witness survivors, who endured horrific ordeals, can be refuted on grounds of  flaws in recollection. What is needed is more awareness of the physical facts, of photographs, videos and other tangible evidence which cannot be refuted with claims of  incorrect memories.

So maybe this is the reason why we have such an emphasis on reading and re-reading the stories of our history as they were recorded by observers at the time. Every single year we read the Book of Esther and the Haggadah, the Book of Ruth and the story of Amalek, so that our inherently flawed collective memories, over many generations do not distort the truth of what really happened. It is the closest to photographic evidence we have; documents written at the time, and read by all those involved, transmitted faithfully word for word through the generations. Once we have accurate details of what happened we can make sure it never happens again. Maybe the commandment to “Wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens — you shall not forget!” is telling us that only by remembering the evils of the Amalek of the past, can we ensure that we “wipe it out” so that it never happens again.

Author Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” Sometimes we need to remember, and sometimes we need to forget, and sometimes we need to remember that our nature is to forget. As the world dismisses the existential threats to the world by modern day Persia as the ravings of a lunatic, we would do well to focus on the words and actions of Amalek and Haman and remember that We Must Never Forget is more than just a slogan.  Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.


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