Parashat T’tzaveh: Remember to Forget

Parashat T’tzaveh: Remember to Forget

(delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks on March 3, 2023)


Psychologists, neurologists, and cyberneticians all study memory and forgetfulness. They seek to learn and explain the “how” of these processes–the dynamics. But these processes constitute the substance of spiritual life.

We are more familiar with mitzvot about remembering. For example, we are to remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy. Less familiar are mitzvot related to forgetfulness. Most prominent is the realm of shich’cha, that if one has harvested their field and forgotten a corner, then one cannot later return to it but, rather, must leave that forgotten corner for the poor.[1] Even more paradoxical is the more general command to forget: Our Tradition tells us to forget grudges, insults, and hurt. Lo tikkom v’lo titor–”you shall not bear a grudge.”[2] Forgetfulness is even considered a blessing.

Yet sometimes forgetfulness is regarded as malevolent. Thus, our Sages taught, Ha-shochei-ach davar echad mi-mishnato ma’a-le alav ha-katuv k’ilu mit-chayev b’naf-sho, “If one forgets a single item from their studies, Scripture considers it as if they were guilty with their life.”[3]

The actual source of all of this is tomorrow’s maftir which gives the Shabbat before Purim its special distinction and its very name: Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of remembering. As the Torah states, Zachor et asher asa l’cha Amalek…lo tish-kach, “Remember what Amalek, that barbaric and savage tribe, did to you…don’t forget.”[4]

Potent, sure, but this seems rather problematic. After all, everyone forgets. Forgetting is natural; it is part of both our psychological and our physiological selves. It is not a volitional or deliberate act. How, then, can the Torah consider it a sin if we forget?

I recommend that we consider an answer suggested by the Gerer Rebbe Yitzchak Meir, better known as the Chiddushei Ha-Rim. Forgetfulness, he offers, often depends upon us. For we are not speaking here of a simple recollection of facts, but the kind of forgetfulness that implies the emptying out of the mind, the catharsis of the heart of its most basic spiritual principles, of the very props of its identity. And this kind of shich’cha is contingent upon ga’avah; it is a forgetfulness which has its roots in human arrogance.

When a person is preoccupied with themselves, they have little space for what is really important. Hence Torah relates,[5] V’ram l’vavecha v’shachach-ta et HaShem Elokecha ha-mo-tsi-a-cha mei-Eretz Mitzrayim mi-beit avadim, “And your heart shall be lifted up, and you will forget HaShem, your G!d who took you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.”

Similarly, tomorrow morning we are commanded to remember and not to forget Amalek. Now the numerical value of the word Amalek is 240–the very same numerical value as the word “ram,” the heart being lifted, raised, exalted, supercilious! When a person raises themself up, filled with conceit, they falter and forget. They forget who they are, what their values are, and what their purpose is.

Too much ego results in too little memory. An absent mind is sometimes the result of a swelled head. A high demeanor results in a low recall. If “ram l’vavecha,” when you think you’re high above it all, you will “v’shachah-ta,” forget Amalek. It is the arithmetic of mind and character.

Indeed, this is a human, and not a specifically Jewish, weakness. Rav Kook taught us in effect that the root of all evils is that we forget who we are, our higher selves. We turn cynical and act as if humankind is only an amalgam of base drives, of ego-satisfactions, of sexual and material grasping. We forget that, in addition, humankind is capable of noble action, of sublime sentiment, of self-sacrifice. And when we forget this, we are in desperate trouble.[6]

In the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, many Jews assimilated due to self-hatred. Today, many do so because of a massive act of ethnic forgetfulness. And such national, cultural, absent-mindedness, such forgetting of our higher identity, is often the result of “v’ram l’vavecha.” Our memory is weakened by excessive affluence and over-confidence. We American Jews have often acted as if our liberties and successes are self-evidently our right. We have acted sometimes as if our good fortune was deserved. And so “v’ram l’vavecha” leads to “v’shachah-ta.” And what do we most often forget? Amalek!

A Swedish non-Jewish woman was proposed several times for the Nobel Peace Prize because of the hundreds of Jews she saved during the Shoah. She said in an interview that only once in her life did she entertain hatred for a fleeting moment. It occurred during a visit she paid to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum, in Jerusalem. She overheard an American Jew exclaim to the guide: “I don’t understand why they didn’t fight? Why weren’t they real men?” Seized with anger, she responded, “Excuse me, sir, but you look fat and prosperous! Have you ever been hungry a day in your life? Do you have any idea what it is like to be starved almost to insanity, surrounded by powerful enemies, aware that no one in the world cares for you? You have some unmitigated nerve to ask that question!”

I confess that on reading this, I shared her contempt–but only for a mini-second. After all, one cannot hate fools; one can only have concern for them.

Certainly, we are subject to that weakness of forgetting time and time again. And so Shabbat Zachor comes along to remind us of “v’ram l’vavecha.” Let us remember and not forget!

Conversely, too, if we remember Amalek, that will lead to a realistic assessment of ourselves, and we shall be able to avoid the pitfall of a “lifted heart.”

It feels as if our country and our world have been in the doldrums. Since the pandemic we have been in a pessimistic mood about the economy, about inflation, about supply chain issues. If, with HaShem’s help, we escape economic disaster–if it will be, as we say in Yiddish, afgekumen mit a shrek, “escaped with a scare”–then perhaps we will have learned to rid ourselves of the cultural and psychological and moral signs of the waywardness, naivete, callousness, and arrogance in our culture, all of which seem as if they are due to “v’ram l’vavecha,” undue confidence inspired by affluence.

So the Chiddushei Ha-Rim has given us an unforgettable lesson about the dynamic interconnectedness of forgetfulness and arrogance. Let it be worthy of our deep thought and meditation this Shabbat. Remember; do not forget.

Shabbat shalom!

[1] Deuteronomy 24:19.

[2] Leviticus 19:18.

[3] Pirkei Avot 3:8.

[4] Deuteronomy 25:17, 19.

[5] Deuteronomy 8:14.

[6] See Orot ha-Kodesh III:97.

Post a comment