March 4, 2023 / 11 Adar 5783 – Shabbat Zachor Torah Reflection

This morning I’d love to share some Torah inspired musings about remembering.

This Shabbat is deemed one of the 4 distinct shabbatot every year in which we are commanded to remember a biblical event.  The Shabbat before Purim is called “Shabbat Zachor” – the Sabbath of remembering.    In Deuteronomy 25:  Moses, in God’s behalf addresses the people, saying:

When you were weary and worn out, they (the nomadic and hostile tribe of Amalekites) met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind [typically women and children]: they had no fear of God. When the Eternal your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land that God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” 

When the megillah is read on Purim we hear that the villainous Haman is a descendant of the Amalekites. 

We are commanded to remember when we light candles on Friday night from the number #4 of the Ten Commandments “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy;” to remember those on whose shoulders we stand with memorial candles; to consecrate remembering itself during the zikhronot (the remembrance) section of the shofar blowing; to remember how it felt and what it was like when we were slaves in Egypt as we celebrate the Passover seder, and the list goes on and on.

In this week’s Torah portion, T’tzaveh, in which God commands the people to make the priestly vestments and ordain Aaron and his sons as the priestly line for all time, we encounter again the mitzvah of remembering:  In Exodus 28:12, with the construction of the special breastplate of 12 stones for the 12 tribes, God says to Aaron when donning the breastplate like a bib, “attach the stones as a remembrance of the Israelites, whose names Aaron shall carry upon his two shoulder pieces for remembrance before the Eternal.”   Zikaron, the word for remembrance, twice in the same sentence – a Torah technique for STAND UP AND TAKE NOTICE.  Again in verse 29:  “Aaron shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breastplate of judgment over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Eternal at all times. 

 How do we interpret the biblical understanding of remembering?

Our sages teach that the word zakhor – remember transforms according to its context.   Aaron’s remembering, with the breastplate sitting on his heart, is the object transforming to the act of caring and loving.  In an earlier biblical story, Joseph says to his cell mate, Pharoah’s chief butler:  ‘But remember me, (or better ‘mention me’) when it goes well with you, and show kindness, to me, and make mention of me to Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house:”   – which the butler did. In Exodus 2:24 in Egypt “God heard the people’s groaning, and God remembered (or better, acted upon) his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.”  In this case, God’s remembering God’s covenant leads to God’s active intervention to rescue Israel from slavery.   This meaning of remembering as rescue and reprieve grabs on to us especially on the heels of last week’s acts of vandalism, as we all navigate our next step in saving this country from unwarranted hatred, and fear of the other. 

For the Torah, remembering is a national past time, about our collective history and conscience and potential.   What happens when we as individuals struggle to remember?   Here’s where it gets tricky, funny, sad, painful, and downright embarrassing.

The story is told of two elderly ladies who were enjoying the sunshine on a park bench in Miami. They had been meeting in that park every sunny day for over 12 years, chatting and enjoying each other’s friendship. One day, the younger of the two ladies turns to the other and says, “Please don’t be angry with me dear, but I am embarrassed. After all these years, what is your name? I am trying to remember, but I just can’t.”  The older friend stares at her, looking distressed, and says nothing for two full minutes.  Finally, she says, “How soon do you have to know?”

When we lose our memory, we may lose our connections not only to our Jewish roots, but also to the who and what of the reality around us. Memory helps us to find our way home – both literally and figuratively.   Scientists give us tips to remember like (1) meet and repeat, (2) conjure up an image (like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea in the to remember the Exodus story) (3) a word association (like a friend named Josie has a furry cat and Josie is allergic to curry) and (4) telling yourself that you care so very much to remember a person, object or story that you will remember.  We do acknowledge that none of these mnemonics work if memory loss is physiological.  

Thankfully we have a world of technology to help us remember in our personal and professional lives:  We rely on our cell phones to tell us our relatives’ phone numbers and our daily obligations.  We have megabytes and gigabytes in our computers to save our precious family narratives in photos, recipes and important documents, all towards a vision of belonging to something bigger than ourselves which connects to our hearts in love and caring.   Our Jewish tradition is conveying the same message, it seems to me.    We have reminders galore – in the synagogue accouterments, in our holiday and memorial day rituals, in our mezuzot and on our tallitot, in our texts, and from our rabbinic sages, past and present.   For what?  Zachor – to remember is to love and be loved in Klal Yisrael  – the collective Israel  If you understand love as being empathic of another’s pain and suffering, and I think we all agree on this, then loving Klal Yisrael  is also our non-stop obligation to do whatever we can to alleviate that which attacks or diminishes love and belongingness in any other human being.   Kayn yihiye ratzon – may it be God’s will.