We Jews have a long memory.
There is a kabbalistic teaching that before we are born, we possess a complete memory of human existence. We have a full understanding and a full knowledge of the world. And once we are born, emerging into this world, this magical gift vanishes. From birth, we have forgotten everything, and must begin to remember everything.
This Shabbat Zachor, we are enjoined to remember what the nation of Amalek did to us on our exodus from Egypt – how they ruthlessly attacked us from behind, targeting the weak and undefended. Our parasha ends with the striking commandment – lo tishkakh! Do not forget!
Yosef Yerushalmi, in his book Zakhor, writes that we are the only people on earth who elevated the act of remembering to a religious imperative. We are commanded constantly to remember this, remember that, don’t forget this, don’t forget that.
Joshua Foer, the journalist and 2006 USA Memory Champion, teaches that there is scientific research that reinforces the value of our Jewish idea. At the neurological level, the act of remembering involves re-actualizing. Every time we recall a memory, we are actively re-engaging that memory at the level of the neuron and re-contextualizing it ever so slightly in light of who we are in the present.
Foer draws attention to how we are commanded to re-engage with our Jewish memory in the present context of who we are today: We don’t just eat matzoh, we are commanded to have a conversation about what it means to eat matzoh. We don’t just put the Shema in mezuzot and in tefillin, we also put in the paragraph from V’ahavta, which reminds us to put these very words on our doorposts and in our tefillin.
“The instructions on how to remember are so holy that we have inextricably paired them with the line that we are supposed to be remembering.”
We don’t just remember what Amalek did, we read the reminder not to forget what Amalek did. In this way, we are ritualize the learning of why this evil was so bad, and the imperative to prevent this type of evil from ever occurring again.
At the same time as we ritualize and re-actualize our memories, remembrance becomes a way to prevent unwanted recurrence. Rabbi Irving Greenberg teaches us that naiveté and amnesia always favor the aggressors. He focuses on the importance of Shabbat Zachor as an opportunity to prevent this naiveté and amnesia:
The Amalekites wanted to wipe out an entire people, memory and all; amnesia completes that undone job… [this is why] it is a special mitzvah to hear this Torah reading.
And yet, as Rabbi Greenberg notes, Zachor is a mitzvah that has made modern Jews uncomfortable. Our modern, progressive thinking encourages us to forgive and forget, to move on and be happy.
But when memory – through re-actualizing and re-engaging – is directed towards the present and the future, it becomes upended, and radically transformed into something new. The innovation of Jewish memory – very much unlike other types of memory – is that it has never been about the past, rather it is about who we are now, and who we have the power to become.
Through the religio-biological examples of Joshua Foer, we learn that part of our obligation as Jews and as humans is to build up our minds, Just as it is our responsibility to gather up the kabbalistic shards of creation and return the world to completeness, it is also our job to collect all of the shards of our memories.