One of the most puzzling bits of text in the Torah comes at the very end of this week’s parasha, Ki Tetzei:
(17) Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt–(18) how, undeterred by the fear of G"d, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. (19) Therefore, when the L"rd your G"d grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the L"rd your G"d is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
We all know Amalek. After all, how could we forget, for Amalek has appeared in many disguises, been known by many names throughout our history. He is our perpetual bogeyman, Therein lies the rub, as many before me have realized. The instructions here seem contradictory – "remember" what Amalek did, blot out Amalek’s memory and "do not forget!" What precisely, are we being told to not forget?Is it the memory of what Amalek did to us? Or is it the instruction to blot out the memory of Amalek? Can we really have it both ways?
Some argue that painful memories are best forgotten. Others argue that repression of bad memories is damaging to the psyche. Some argue that holding a grudge is pointless and counter-productive. Others argue that sometimes holding a grudge can keep one necessarily cautious and protect one from future abuses. Some hold that some bad things are more heinous than others. Others claim that circumstances can affect the heinousness of something bad-that it is a relative distinction.
Speaking of situational things, perhaps, to understand what is being said here, it is necessary to extend back to the beginning of verse 19. It is in the context of being in a time and place of safety from enemies that we are told to blot out Amalek’s memory. So does this mean that at times when we are in danger, we should not blot out Amalek’s memory? Then what about the words "Do not forget?" Are we to "not not" forget during times of danger (i.e., remember.) Is this a caution that when times are perilous, we should keep the memory of Amalek alive? That is to say, when we are threatened, we would be wise to remind ourselves (and the rest of the world, by extension?) of what Amalek did.
Perhaps, by extension,and recognition of the often circuitous syntax of ancient Hebrew, we can also include the "Remember what Amalek did…" as part of what we should do when we are in that safe time and place. Would this then mean that, when we are not in a safe place, we should not remember what Amalek did? That doesn’t really make any sense, and that is perhaps why this thought is expressed separate and apart from the "blot out" and "do not forget" that we are instructed to do when we are in a safe time and place.
So let’s sort this all out, what we have so far:
- Remember what Amalek did — is something we should do at all times
- Blot out Amalek’s memory is something we should do when we are in a time and place of safety
- Do not forget (but we’re not sure exactly what we shouldn’t forget) is something we should do when we are in a time and place of safety. (Is the "Do not forget" telling us not to forget to blot out Amalek’s memory?)
- Do not blot out Amalek’s memory at times when we are threatened
- Do forget (but we’re not sure exactly what to forget) in times when we are threatened. (Of course, the instruction "do forget to blot out Amalek’s memory" is the equivalent of the former statement above.
It’s all to confusing for me, and too systematical. So much of our Judaism seems wrapped up in this conundrum. We are prisoners of our past (and present.) Much evil has befallen us.
Is it time to break out of this viscous cycle of memory? Our memories of what has happened to us can, and do, protect us from possible harm. At the same time, our constant use of those memories eats away at our ability to find new paths of peace, new ways of relating to the world. We have taught ourselves, and are teaching our children basic mistrust of the other. While it may be true that, even here in America, we Jews are but one "knock on the door" away from a new nightmare, how can we build positive Jewish identities on that?
We are in a time of relative peace and safety for our people (albeit many Israelis would disagree, and rightfully so, but that’s a discussion for another time.) OK, so we diaspora Jews are in a time of relative safety. Maybe it is time to forget to blot out Amalek’s memory? We are still going to "remember what Amalek did to us" so we can always have just that little bit of caution, yet we need not focus so much time and effort on blotting out the memory of Amalek.
Of course, this also leads to a built of a conundrum. It IS necessary to keep alive in the minds of the entire world what Amalek, in his disguise as the Nazis, did to us. Places like the USHMM and the Southern Poverty Law Center serve a vital purpose. So how can we "remember what Amalek did" without having to blot out Amalek’s memory?
Remembering is, essentially, a passive activity. Blotting out is not passive. Perhaps this holds a clue to solving the riddle of – remember-blot out, don’t forget. Blotting out could mean destroying the physical traces of Amalek (in all his iterations.) It’s the modern equivalent of how Pharaoh’s ordered previous Pharaoh’s to be forgotten and all traces of them erased. Even they learned that so doing would not erase the memory of these previous Pharaohs. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that, in our times of relative safety, we will certainly remember Amalek, but we don’t need to put physical effort into erasing his traces. Makes some sense, but begs the question of why it makes sense, during times when we are in danger, to do the physical blotting out of memory. Is it to prevent these physical memories from opening and keeping open wounds? Is it a caution against allowing these physical memories to fire up our anger and cause us to do heinous things in response to heinous things? Time of war and trouble are dangerous times, and once riled up, it doesn’t take much to push people over the edge of civilized behavior. We see that time and again.
How we use memory is a choice. We can use memory for good, and we can use memory for evil. I;d like to believe that Torah is teaching us to use memory for good, but at this point, I’m not entirely certain that it’s message in these verses. I’m certainly going to try and find a way to read these verses so they can be read as instructions to choose to use memory for good.
When to remember, when to blot out, when to not forget. It’s an exhausting enterprise. Yet a worthy one. I encourage the effort, for myself, and for you.
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester