Remembering all the commands to remember
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the journey, after you left Egypt — 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. 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
This is not my favorite passage in Torah. I have longed been troubled by the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek, who attacked the Israelites on our way out of Egypt.Together with the brutal Haftarah (in which God punishes Saul for failing to fully carry out the command to obliterate all the Amalekites, as well as their flocks), this passage holds the risk of encouraging xenophobia, vengefulness and even violence among Jews to this day.
On Purim 1994, Baruch Goldstein performed an act of hideous terrorism, killing 29 Muslims at prayer at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, purportedly acting out the massacre of Amalek’s heir, Haman, his family and community, at the end of the Purim story. For many years I spent considerable time and energy trying to encourage contemporary Jews to examine whether their focus on anti-Semitism was well-placed.
Along with many colleagues, I believed that in late 20th– and early 21st-century America, we had finally reached a time and place where anti-Semites no longer threatened us as they had in our traumatic past, and it was time for us to embrace this respite from our chronic fear. I feared that too much focus on Jewish tragedy and vulnerability would be bad for our souls, and certainly bad for the prospect of passing on a Judaism of life and joy to our children.
Obviously, I was wrong. Active, lethal anti-Semitism has come roaring back into our lives. Today, no one needs to command us to remember that we are again at risk. In 21st-century America, our synagogues can again be violated by hate. But, even as we act to keep ourselves safe, I would still ask how much spiritual energy we as a community should devote to anti-Semitism.
After all, there are two other remembrance commands that are far more central to Torah and to Jewish life than the exhortation to remember Amalek. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Jewish literature is replete with descriptions of the centrality of Shabbat for Jews and for the Jewish people. And it is described as an act of remembering — recalling and appreciating the creation of the world (Exodus 20:11). Remembering that God rested, as it were, after creating the universe is the model for our own need to rest, unplug from creative activity, and nourish our own souls on the seventh day.
Less obviously, Shabbat is also described as intrinsically connected to God’s redemptive act of bringing us from slavery to freedom (Deut. 5:15). From this perspective, Shabbat is a time to celebrate liberation. Just as we were delivered from slavery in Egypt, once a week we free ourselves from tyrannical demands, both external and internal. Interestingly, here too the language of remembering is used. For example, in Kiddush for Friday night, we find both the expressions zikaron l’ma’asei vereishit (a reminder of Creation) and zeicher leyitziat Mitzrayim (recalling the Exodus from Egypt).
The command to remember the Exodus from Egypt also appears at the end of the recitation of the Shema, so that traditional Jews recite the words “I am your Eternal God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God” (Numbers 15:37-41) twice each day: morning and evening. Remembering the gift of being freed from slavery is literally a daily obligation for us.
Obviously, we live in times when we must again protect ourselves from those who would do us harm as Jews. In that sense, we might say that Amalek is still present in the world. But we must not let the actions of the relatively few hate-filled people overtake the other remembrance commands, which lie at the very heart of Jewish life. Let us be safe, but let us not let the hate-mongers rob us of what we most cherish. Let us not fail to remember and celebrate that which is sacred, precious and life-giving for us. This column first appeared, with a different title, at