Zachor: Remember Not to Forget

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Winding Road

Blackberry or Treo or iPhone. I won’t pasken on this vexing contemporary shayla. Either way, it is the business of a multi-billion dollar enterprise, the memory industry. Capitalizing on human frailty, the PDA offers compensation; in a world moving ever so quickly, we dare not forget that crucial meeting nor miss that all-important birthday (anniversary, wedding or bar mitzvah…).

The week of Purim is one where our nation remembers in so many ways. We commence by reading the classic parsha of memory, one that speaks of paradoxical dual obligations to completely wipe out Amalek while always remembering them [Devarim, 25:17-19]

[Zachor] Remember what Amalek perpetrated against you on the road when you were going out of Egypt. When they chanced upon you on the road; they struck down your appendage— all the feeble ones behind you— and you were exhausted and wearied, and they had no fear of G-d. When Ad-noy, your G-d, has given you repose from all your enemies around, in the land that Ad-noy, your G-d, is giving you as territory to inherit, you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from beneath the sky; [lo tishkach] do not forget.

Much is striking about this formulation. Alshich lists twenty plus questions on the commandment. Herein, five notable inquiries:

Our final question (e.) is not a halachic inquiry. Often the Torah will couch its obligations in a classic double [positive-negative] formulation. Consider: a. Remember the Shabbos, nor may you violate it. b. Place a parapet around your house and do not place blood in your home. c. Return the lost object and do not hide from your obligation of return. Similarly, tishkach may be rendered “Remember what Amalek did and do not forget them”. Indeed, Rambam, Chinuch, and Semag all classify the Amalek memory imperative as distinct positive and negative obligations.

Nevertheless, what passes halachic muster still begs for philosophical clarity! We must question the necessity of the two pronged obligation.

First, a simple Talmudic piece [Megillah 18a]:

‘Remember’ [zachor]- Am I to say, this means only with the mind? When the text says, “you shall not forget”, the injunction against mental forgetfulness is already given. What then does ‘remember’ mean? This must mean, by utterance.

In other words, zachor-remember is the obligation to articulate while lo tishkach-do no forget encompasses latent memory. Thought without articulation is not sufficient to fulfill the positive mitzvah of remembering Amalek, but would qualify as a fulfillment of the negative commandment (1).

We will revisit this distinction. For a moment, let’s move to our first question: Wherein lay Amalek’s uniqueness?

A brief exploration of his roots yields a clue. First, the text: [Bereishis, 36:12]

And Timna was a concubine to Eliphaz, son of Esau, and she bore to Eliphaz, Amalek.

Then the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b)

And Lotan’s sister was Timna? — Timna was a royal princess .. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Eisav, saying, ‘I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.’ From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel.

Amalek emerges from Eisav, Yisrael’s antithesis. Disdaining all things spiritual, Eisav rejects the birthright precisely for its lack of present-worldly value (2). But Eisav alone does not create Amalek. His son Eliphaz marries Timna. – a woman who seeks purpose, and is rejected by Avraham. She bonds with Eliphaz. Together they have Amalek. Timna bequeaths to Amalek the gift of passion and purpose. Witness that both Bnei Yisrael and Amalek are called a nation of firsts (reishit)

First, as in primary! Both possess a sense of mission and sacrifice. Rashi’s famous midrash declares:

They cooled you, moderated you to tepidness from seething heat. For all the nations were afraid of waging war against you, until they commenced, preparing the way for others. This is compared with a boiling bath into which no creature could enter. One villain came and leaped into it. Although he was scalded, he cooled it for the others.

And what does Amalek seek? It’s a long story, but here’s the upshot: Amalek raison d’etre is to wreak havoc upon faith and the faithful. Amalek’s weltanschauung is the random world, perceiving history as a capricious set of events without ultimate rhyme or purpose. Amalek-world champions safek (Doubt); both (amalek and safek) possess the same gematria (numeric equivalent value = 240); Amalek desires to insinuate doubt in the believer’s world and to ultimately sever one’s connection with the Divine.

Rabbinic literature thus equates Amalek with yetzer hara and the primordial serpent, the nachash. That which prompts the Amalek reminder immediately before Purim, is the belief in randomness, mikreh – a word that binds Haman to his ancestor Amalek. [Esther, 4:7]

And Mordecai told him of all that had happened to him [karahu]. He said to Hatach: ‘ Go and say to her: “The descendant of karahu has come upon you,”‘

In a random world, reflection, spirituality, morality and all things good are ultimately meaningless. Perhaps a social contract may be necessary but that is pragmatic not philosophical, technical and not fundamental

Finally, Amalek catches us on the road; an utterly trivial statement – unless one considers that it is the road to Sinai! Amalek’s mission: to get us off the road. The epic battle between Amalek and Yisrael takes place on our road. For the Jew, our world is a pathway to purpose; for Amalek, the here and now is not a conduit – it is home sweet home. Amalek’s antipathy for us is because we transform their homes into our roads – a spiritual eminent domain without compensation!

Here we return to our zachor/al tishkach double obligation:

A friend calls. Struggling in a downward spiral and enmeshed in an unbelievably painful personal reevaluation of his path, he is now on the mend. We speak tachlis! [briefly and sincerely]; he formulates a gem: “The source of all my problems (and there were many) began when I distanced myself from God. When I was down, I always knew God was in my life. Then I felt in control, I told God: I’ll take over now. That was the moment it all began to slip away.”

Zachor, a verbal repudiation of Amalek requires clarity. In pristine moments, dispelling Amalek is easy, while doubt seems inconceivable. When are those moments? For some, they might come davka amidst a sea of engulfing difficulties so overwhelming that there is only God to turn to. Others find God amidst serenity and simcha. Either way, when God feels close, it is hard to imagine there is any room for Amalek.
Amalek however is patient; it preys on the weak ones and pounces during times of weakness. It is when clarity yields to muddle and pristine to puzzlement, that the Torah mandates lo tishkach (3). Hold on. You may not be able to see Hashem and articulate the clarity; He might seem so distant, but do not shut Him out.

As we move on to Megillat Esther (the revelation of the hidden), may the inner Amalek, the looming doubts that may plague us mitachat hashamayim, in our this-worldly existence of God’s concealment, be defeated!

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1. This indeed is the explicit position of Minchas Chinuch and others:
2. cf. midrash rabah and Eisav said: behold, I am at the point to die, etc. (ib. 32). resh lakish said: he began to revile and blaspheme: it is not written, ‘ what is [the birthright] to me, but, what is this to me-zeh (this teaches that he denied him of whom it is written, this is my god-zeh eli (ex. xv, 2).)
3. Perhaps one can even posit that one must engage in zachor to the point that is lo tishkach, i.e. when you are in clarity mode, embed the emunah so deeply so that you will ultimately not forget even in times of concealment.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.