So Remembering Him: The Paradox and Paradigm of Amalek

This week is Shabbat Zachor, one of the special shabbatot preceding Pesach. In the Maftir aliyah, we read Moshe’s account of Amalek’s cowardly attack on Israel: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary….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!” (Deuteronomy 25: 17-19)

This commandment seems to contain two contradictory injunctions. On the one hand, we are told “remember” and “do not forget.” On the other hand, we are instructed to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” which suggests that we should forget Amalek entirely, leaving not even a mental trace. Were we to successfully fulfill the second injunction, the first injunction would make no sense: How can we remember what has already been blotted out?

The message of Shabbat Zachor seems to be a dual one, Zachor v’Tishkach b’dibur echad. We have to simultaneously remember and forget Amalek, suggesting that remembering and forgetting are equally important acts. Yet this is surprising. We often hear about the Jewish imperative to remember: Remember the Sabbath day, remember the exodus, remember that you were a stranger in a strange land…. But since when is forgetting a positive value?

I was thinking about this question recently when studying Kohelet Rabbah, a midrashic collection that examines many of the themes in the book of Ecclesiastes, including vanity, the futility of human pursuits, and the absence of lasting value in a world of transience. The speaker in this book, Kohelet king of Jerusalem, describes his attempt “to study and probe with wisdom all that happens under the sun.” The rabbis in the midrash identify Kohelet with King Solomon and assume that this verse refers to Solomon’s quest to study all the Torah there is to learn. And yet Solomon finds that learning Torah does not just consist of remembering what he has learned, but of forgetting it as well. In commenting on Kohelet 2:12, “My thoughts also turned to appraising wisdom,” the rabbis state, “Do not read this as “turned (paniti),” but rather “emptied (piniti). I emptied myself like a vessel that is alternately filled and then emptied. So too did Shlomo alternatively learn Torah and then forget it” (KR 2:12).

This seems to be another instance of the futility that is so rampant in this book, but in fact, as the midrash shows, quite the opposite is true: “The rabbis of Babylonia would say in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak: It is for man’s own good that he learns Torah and forgets it, because if a person were to learn Torah and never forget it, he would study Torah for two or three years and then go back to hi s work, and he would never invest his whole life in Torah. However, since a person learns Torah and forgets it, he never desists or retreats from the study of Torah” (KR 1:13). The midrash suggests that there is an inherent value in forgetting what we have learned, because this enables us to spend our lives learning. If so, then the ideal student is not the plastered well that never loses a drop, but rather the ever-flowing fountain from which water evaporates and then returns to its source.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Kohelet Rabbah depicts learning and forgetting as bound up with one another, because indeed this is very much how our brains work. We do not remember everything our minds assimilate, nor would we want to. So much of what we notice in the world or absorb about our surrounding is irrelevant to us in the long term–the weather forecast for a particular morning, the price of eggs in the market in a town we once lived, the name of every student in a class we once taught–and we are lucky that we are able to shed it with such abandon. Were we never to forget a thing, our brains would become so cluttered with useless information that it would be difficult to retrieve information that is still of value. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges captures this notion in his short story “Funes the Memorious,” which tells of a man who falls off a horse and experiences a form of reverse amnesia, such that he cannot forget anything at all:

“When he fell, he’d been knocked unconscious; when he came to again, the present was so rich, so clear, that it was almost unbearable, as were his oldest and even his most trivial memories….Now his perception and his memory were perfect…. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the features of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho…. Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree in every patch of forest, but every time he had perceived or imagined that leaf….He was the solitary, lucid spectator of a multiform, momentous, and almost unbearably precise world….He had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars.”

Funes is the sponge who absorbs everything but is unable to filter. His memory is so overwhelmingly vast that it cripples him. If only he could forget some of what he knew, he might be able to lead a normal life. Nietzsche captures the problematic nature of a person who lacks the capacity to forget: “It is possible to live almost without memory, indeed to live happily, as the animals show us, but without forgetting it is utterly impossible to live at all.” This statement is true not just on the intellectual level, but on the emotional level as well. All of us go through moments in life that cause us pain and distress. Were we always to re-experience those moments with the same immediacy, they would prevent us from ever being able to move on. Instead, with time, our memories begin to fade, and new experiences are superimposed such that the traumatic events of the past become woven, we hope, into the larger fabric of our lives. “Time cures all ills,” we are commonly told, though the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millet calls this cliché into question in one of her sonnets:

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide.

Millet’s outburst becomes, in the second half of the poem, a musing about the paradoxical relationship between memory and forgetting:

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, – so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

In an effort to forget her lover, the poet seeks out a place that bears no trace of his memory – a place where he is utterly blotted out from under the heavens. When she finally finds such a place, her instinctive reaction is to point out that indeed, in that place, “There is no memory of him here!” And thus the very absence of any trace brings back a torrent of memories.

Perhaps this is the same paradox of memory and forgetting that we find in Parshat Zachor. We must blot out any memory of Amalek, but in so doing, we must be acutely conscious of what it is that we are blotting out. In the holiday of Purim, which we will celebrate this coming week, we are commanded to drown out the name of Haman, who is considered a descendant of Amalek, by sounding noisy groggers whenever Haman’s name is read in the Megillah. Paradoxically, however, we are not allowed to drown out Haman’s name completely. If the sound of the groggers renders Haman’s name inaudible, the reader of the Megillah is halachically obligated to repeat the name of Haman so that everyone can hear it. Judaism is not a religion of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Mentioneds.” We speak out Voldemort’s name loud and clear, and only then do we say Yimach Shmo. Before we erase, we must record; before we drown out, we must make sure we hear.

I hope that as we move on from Parshat Zachor to Purim, we will become better equipped to strike the appropriate balance between memory and forgetting. May our lives always be rich with learning, with the ability to create meaning from our experiences, and with the healing that enables us to move on.

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