Tell me if this has happened to you: someone stops you for directions and you find yourself using landmarks that are no longer relevant, maybe even no longer extant.
When I’m on Cape Cod I do this all the time: “Oh, you want to go past where Dunfy’s used to be.” Or “it’s right near Bornstein’s Nissan dealership.” Dunfy’s is the location of the current Cape Cod Convention Center, and it hasn’t been called that in 30 years, and Bornstein sold the dealership 15 years ago, and now it’s an empty building.
Memory is funny like that. Things that happened years ago can sometimes feel more real than anything going on right now. All the more true when a memory is especially strong—a moment of pride, of joy, of shame, or sadness. I can remember when I learned to ride a bike, or when I first met my best friend, or when I met Marisa—well, the second time (she insists we met before but I’m not going there). And I can remember when I hurt my classmate’s feelings in rabbinic school, when I got in a fight with Doug Witt on the playground of Centerville Elementary, and when I screwed up at my Viola recital in 4th grade. But don’t ask me about any of my assignments my sophomore year of high school, or the name of the kid I hung out with one night on my summer Israel trip, or the number for my carrel at the Klau Library in Cincinnati where I wrote my thesis. There wasn’t enough feeling, enough emotion, enough energy.
Memory is funny that way. We know that intuitively, but science is now validating that understanding. As Diane Ackerman wrote: “In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.” And “All relationships change the brain - but most important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self.”
So our memories are not just shaped by intensity, but the nature of the relationship itself. Really, this validates Buber that it all goes back to the relationship. And this is reflected in the most true sense in this week’s portion, Ki Tetzei. In it, God (through Moses) reminds Israel of what Amalek did:
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, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
A trauma, as the rabbis remind us, that hit us when we were a new people, at our most optimistic, perhaps most naïve. To be attacked as we went out of Egypt, the Sea closed over our Pursuers, marching toward Sinai, a moment that should have been triumphant reduced to violence and vulnerability. To make matters worse, there are those who argue that Amalek is a kind of mirror-image, bizzarro Jewish people, our parallel in many ways (Samson Raphael Hirsch especially explored this idea). If we accept that idea, then it is as if we were beset by what we most fear and despise about ourselves.
While most of us would argue that Egyptian Bondage and Babylonian Captivity and Roman Exile have defined us as a People most of all, I might argue that Amalek—attacking us in a moment of optimism, revealing our vulnerabilities—gave us definition as well. And we struggle with that memory of Amalek even today. As the rabbis say, every generation has its own Amalek. Amalek’s story becomes a speculum reflecting many Jewish historical narratives: medieval oppression, modern anti-semitism, European Holocaust, Exile. The idea of Jew as victim, Jew as vulnerable, and safety being contingent on remembering those moments of victimhood and vulnerability are still very much alive and present in our lives. They are part of our Interfaith Dialogue with other religious communities, part of our conversation about Israel’s identity and how it uses force and is seen by the world, and part of our own struggle in the modern era to cast off the idea of Victimhood or passive recipient and embrace the idea of the Jew as covenanted, active partner in creation. To put it another way, which influence us more, our memories of trauma or our memories of success, and which do we want to have influence over us? I would argue that Judaism too frequently has allowed trauma—all the way back to our birth as a people—to define us. Certainly the memory of trauma has allowed too many non-Jews to define us as victims. As I was saying to a colleague earlier this week, too often the starting point for interfaith dialogue with non-Jews is the Holocaust, rather than, say, opportunities for prayerful study, or responding to the needs of the community.
Which brings us back to the other part of the mitzvah presented: while we’re commanded to remember and not forget, we’re also reminded to blot out the name of Amalek. How can we blot out a name we’re supposed to remember? Because memory—even traumatic memory, even a memory so overwhelming that it has helped shaped a people over thousands of years—should not hold us back from our mission, but inspire it. We remember Amalek not to focus on our victimhood, but to fuel our sympathy for those in need. Yes, it reminds us of how we were—and are still—vulnerable. And vulnerability is a powerful feeling, one that inspires fear and distrust of others. But it can also be a catalyst for action—having been vulnerable, we want protect others, not just ourselves. It can mean fear of exposure and uncertainty, but can also mean courage in the face of hardship, and the willingness to seek out friends and allies. NOT EVERYONE IS AMALEK, not everyone is out to get us. More than that, our memories as a people and as individuals give us the ability to form relationships and do powerful transformational work in our community. Our memories allow us to blot out Amalek.
The memory of Amalek is powerful, as powerful as any memory we may carry individually. It can inspire fear and paranoia, convince us that the world is a dangerous place, or it can inspire courage to face the world and transform it. It can hold us back or press us forward. It can cause us to see only enemies, or help us find friends and partners. As we move toward Rosh Hashanah, ask yourself how your memories shape your own experience and actions. Hold on to your memories, for they are our identity, but let those memories inspire.