D’var for Shabbes Zachor • February 19, 2021 • Beth Israel Center Madison, WI
I want to ask you, to start, to take 10 seconds to concentrate on a painful memory. Go ahead. Focus. Close your eyes if you need to.
Ok. Now, for 10 more seconds, do the same on a joyous memory.
We’ve moved from some times of deep pain into Adar, the most joyous month, and this shabbes is Shabbes Zachor, the shabbes of remembrance. So I want to talk about memory: what we know, what we forget, what we remember, and, just as important, what we unremember.
Let’s start with something some might not know, or might’ve forgotten: Shabbes Zachor is the shabbes before the week of Purim. Why is it called the shabbes of remembrance? Because instead of our usual maftir and haftarah for Parasha Terumah, we read from Dvarim and from Samuel, respectively. In both, we’re dealing with the instructions to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites as they left Egypt, and, conjunctly, to eradicate the Amalekites for those deeds.
The curious might ask: why are these texts featured in a special shabbes before Purim? The answer, according to midrash, is that Haman was himself an Amalekite, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag, who features in the haftarah. Shaul is instructed, in the text, to go to the “city of the Amalekites” and raze it, destroying everything. Instead, Shaul takes Agag captive and keeps “all that was good” from the city for himself. After rebuke from Samuel, Shaul repents, sacrifices all that he took from the city, and then executes Agag. Ultimately, however, Shaul’s refusal to remember to utterly destroy Amalek leads to the end of his own royal lineage.
So: Haman’s defeat and death, alongside the death of his family and supporters, serves as both a successful instantiation of the commandment in the maftir, and a counterexample to Shaul’s failure in the haftarah.
This doesn’t explain why we read these texts on the shabbes before Purim. Why not on Purim itself? My favorite explanation is from the 17th century rabbi Avraham Gombiner, the Magen Avraham, who noted that there are simply more people in shul on shabbes than on Purim. Want to send a message to the people? Go where the people are.
In the spirit of Purim, though, I want to ignore the rabbis and advance my own thoughts on the question. Let’s start with the injunction to get drunk on Purim. From the Talmud Bavli, Megillah 7b, we have the famous instruction from Rava:
אָמַר רָבָא מִיחַיַּיב אִינִישׁ לְבַסּוֹמֵי בְּפוּרַיָּא עַד דְּלָא יָדַע בֵּין אָרוּר הָמָן לְבָרוּךְ מָרְדֳּכַי
A person is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until he is so intoxicated that he does not know how to distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.
Now, let’s think about this. We’re instructed in both maftir and haftarah to remember what the Amalekites did and to eradicate them. And yet on Purim, we’re instructed to drink so much that we can’t even remember the difference between Haman and Mordecai. So, clearly, reading reminders to remember on Purim is self-defeating.
And yet: Purim is the ultimate holiday of remembering. More than any other holiday we celebrate, in fact. We find, in the megillah, this directive on remembering:
וְהַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה נִזְכָּרִים וְנַעֲשִׂים בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר מִשְׁפָּחָה וּמִשְׁפָּחָה מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וְעִיר וָעִיר וִימֵי הַפּוּרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֹא יַעַבְרוּ מִתּוֹךְ הַיְּהוּדִים וְזִכְרָם לֹא־יָסוּף מִזַּרְעָם׃
Consequently, these days are recalled and observed in every generation: by every family, every province, and every city. And these days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never perish among their descendants
And according to midrash based on this verse, Purim will be the only holiday we celebrate in the messianic days:
שכל המועדים עתידים בטלים, וימי הפורים אינם בטלים לעולם
“[A]ll of the holidays are to be nullified in the future but the days of Purim will never be nullified.”
There’s an irony, here: the holiday that features a directive to drink until we can’t remember even the simplest distinctions is the holiday that’ll be remembered even after all the others have faded.
That irony, I insist, is crucial, even central, to making meaning of not just the days of Purim, but all the days of our lives. Because what’s going on, when we get drunk on Purim, is not forgetting. We are not negligently failing to remember something important. Quite the opposite. We are intentionally acting to not remember. We are unremembering.
And in doing so, we are, to borrow a concept from Paul Wenzel Geissler, one of my favorite colleagues, remembering what not to remember.
Now, clearly, we’re not always consciously deciding what to remember and what not to remember. There’s fascinating neuroscience on the phenomenon of forgetting. Matt Banks is our resident neuroscientist, so I’ll point you to him for the scholarship.
What I’m focusing on here, though, again, is a conscious, active, deliberate act. And it’s a vital one. Without remembering what not to remember, we’d be paralyzed, or depressed, or both. All the pressing realities of our world would be constant reminders of how we might be better spending our attention and energies.
If we could not consciously set aside all the pain we know is in our world, we’d never be able to experience our own joy. Think about how I asked you to first focus on a painful memory, and then a joyful one. Consider what it would have felt like if I’d done the opposite.
So: there’s a time to remember Amalek, and a time to remember not to remember Amalek. And the order of that is important.
Notably, none of the commentary I’ve reviewed on Shabbes Zachor raises the question of why we wouldn’t observe it after Purim. Wouldn’t it make sense to first unremember Amalek, and then remind ourselves to remember?
It would be painful; it would leave us with the pain, and not the joy.
And because of that, it’d also be counterproductive.
Because unremembering can also be a trap. A very tempting trap. Unremembering can left us off the hook. Once we’ve unremembered something, we can all too easily convince ourselves that we’ve unintentionally forgotten, and maybe never really known, those pressing realities I mentioned. It can become an excuse: we didn’t choose not to see, not to hear, not to speak; rather, we were blind, deaf, and dumb.
If we first remind ourselves of the pain, and only then indulge ourselves in unremembering, we’ve done the hard work first: and we’ve insured we’ll remember we’ve done it, because the persistence of pain helps us remember why we’re unremembering in the first place: not to avoid, but to aid.
This is essential, especially given rabbinic commentary on how we know who Amalek is today: which is to say, we don’t know. We’re not enjoined, as Shaul was in our haftarah, to actively pursue specific people, because Amalek is no longer a specific people. Amalek is, rather, part and parcel of our most pressing realities. Which means Amalek will always be with us.
And that explains why we’re told we’ll always remember Purim, the holiday of unremembering, of remembering what not to remember. Because messianic days do not mean days in which our most pressing realities will have ceased. Like Purim, they will never cease.
It’s not just that it’s not our task to fulfill the work, as Rabbi Tarfon famously said; it’s that we can never truly know when the work has been fulfilled. That could be a paralyzing, depressing realization. The entire point of Purim is to help us deal with it. The more we learn it, know it, remember it, the more we’ll understand the need to celebrate days of unremembering, days that bring us joy. Justice, justice we shall pursue, yes: but joy’s what makes justice worth the pursuit.