The Bible Says What? ‘Remember to forget’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Remember to forget’

Student rabbi  Lev Taylor looks at a controversial passage of Jewish text

Torah scroll (Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash)
Torah scroll (Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash)

“Remember what Amalek did to you… after you left Egypt… Never forget how, undeterred by fear of God, he ambushed you as you walked, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers at your back.”

We read only three lines from this important parashah in the Torah portion before Purim, and within these is a seeming contradiction: “Blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” We must remember what he did, and also destroy his memory. Rashi says we should never mention his name again. How can we do both?

The philosopher Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi suggests this is about what remembering means in Jewish tradition. We do not have history, he says, but memory. Jews do not record historical events, the names of kings or the dates when important battles were fought. That is history and is somebody else’s domain.

Jews have memory. We recall and retell. Every year we re-enact. At Purim, we are not reading a historical account. We are carrying out
a pantomime with a host of characters, remembering the essence of
a story long forgotten.

In that way, we have already blotted out the name of Amalek and have turned him into every evil person from a past. Whatever man he once was is now a stock character for evil. And when you have blotted out an individual like that, all that is left is the moral lesson from their behaviour. He attacked the weak. |He took advantage of people at their most vulnerable. He was a coward and a bully.

We forget who he was by putting his name onto everyone like him.
We remember what he did so we may never be like him.

  •  Lev Taylor is a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College

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