In a couple of weeks, (iy”h) I will be traveling to California. During that visit, I have decided that I will make a trip to The Valley to visit to my father’s grave. It is significant not only because it’s an important thing to do, but also because it is something I have not ever done before.
In preparing for this, I have been thinking a lot about the role of remembering in our lived experience.
There are things we try hard to remember, we want to savor them, we want to hold onto them forever — or maybe we just need them for tomorrow’s math quiz. Even so, sometimes they are elusive.
There are the things we try hard to forget: painful memories, mistakes we have made, images that would give us nightmares.
Then there are the insignificant things which either stick for some reason or float away unnoticed.
Jewish tradition constantly tries to navigate the tension between the past and the future. Doing so requires not only that we remember certain sayings, stories and historical events, but that we hold them in a kind of presence of memory.
One such instance occurs in the special Torah reading the Shabbat before Purim, this Shabbat. We read a maftir called zachor, meaning remember. Here’s what it says:
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, 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 Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:17-19).
Generations of rabbis have found this passage confusing. On the one hand the Torah says, “remember,” on the other hand it says “you shall blot out the memory,” and then it says, “do not forget.” So, which is it?
When we think about it though, it’s actually not that surprising that we should find some ambivalence around this memory. Our experience with Amalek represents a moment of weakness on our part, a moment of defeat and also a display of human cruelty. Much like our experience with the Holocaust, it is something that both must be remembered and at the same time our lives would much easier if we could just blot it out from all memory.
“Amalek” represents a euphemism for the evil in the world. Of course to truly live in this world, we have to acknowledge that evil exists. Only when we recognize it and engage with it do we begin to try to banish it from existence.
At the same time, if our ultimate goal is to replace is the evil in the world with goodness, we have to emphasize the good in the world, we have to have moments where the fact of the evil in the world is “blotted out from memory.”
On the one hand it seems counter-intuitive that we need to be told to remember such a terrible experience. Aren’t humans prone to holding grudges? Yes and no. We may be prone to remembering something it if serves us in some way – maybe it helps us to feel self-righteous or superior to the other person.
Yet, we’re also prone to forgetting things when it serves us, especially if it at one point in time such forgetting served an evolutionary need. Humans are highly social beings, and sometimes the inclination to forget offenses proves indispensable to our survival and well-being.
We face a dilemma when we experience intense tragedy and injustice: Should we make an effort to remember it or should we try to move on from it and banish it from memory?
What is the benefit of remembering such horrible things?
The trademark saying of Holocaust education is: “Never forget.” As a child my experience with Holocaust education left me in a state of despair about the world. For a long time I felt that educating our youth about the Holocaust only served to pass along the traumatization, creating a kind of vicarious oppression. Over time I have come to see why Holocaust education is so vitally important — we just have to be thoughtful about how we do it.
The purpose of Holocaust education is so that it doesn’t happen again, and the best way to make that happen is to create an educational process that helps students develop empathy. Shock value is overdone and creates more fear, but education that instills compassion combined with a strong ethic of involvement can help promote a culture of “righteous gentiles” and “righteous Jews” — the kind of people who would hide someone in their attic or risk their own lives to sneak someone out of the country.
Remembering can be painful. Remembering my dad causes some amount of pain, but I’m not going to his grave in order to dredge up unhappy memories of his death. I plan to give honor to the life that he had, short as it was.
What matters is not only that I remember him, but how I remember him, and how I make meaning out of my experience. Painful as it was, my father’s death directly impacted my sense of mission in the world. Every time I officiate at a funeral, I feel that there is little tikkun, a little repair of that which has been torn, because someone got the chance to really mourn and really honor the life of their loved one.
When we face heart-wrenching moments with courage and honesty, memorializing can actually serve to heal the pain of loss. Remembering, even when it causes sadness, serves a purpose. It encourages us to consider how we might help soothe another’s pain.
So, in answer to our dilemma, I would say that it’s less a question of what we remember and more a question of how we remember. When G-d wants us to remember Amalek, the worst of people, it’s not so that we carry a grudge or toughen our skin against the harsh world. It’s the opposite. It’s so that we soften towards others, so that we make a tikkun, and turn grief and loneliness into loving-kindness and compassion.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Purim