What We Remember, What We Forget

There's a movie in which the main character suffers from severe short-term memory loss. To cope, he develops a system that allows him to negotiate the world. One aspect of his system is to write copious notes of everything that happens, the most important of which he tattoos on his body, so it become permanent. The main character in the short story, “Funes the Memorious” by Jorge Luis Borges wrestles with the opposite affliction – he cannot forget anything. When he remembers a youthful summers day, he remembers everything about the day; what happened, the color of the sky, the shapes of clouds, the feel of the grass against his skin, the sound of a car driving by. In addition, he remembers every associated emotion or feeling or thought of the day as if it was happening anew. He remembers the day, the hour, the minute, the experience of each event of his life.

He is consumed by memory. He makes us understand that as much as we value memory – and we do, consider the terror with which we contemplate late-life dementia or Alzheimer’s to appreciate just how visceral we embrace remembering! – there are many times when we long for the ease, the comfort and the blessing of forgetfulness.

Remembering. Forgetting.

In remembering and forgetting we once again experience our humanness as a constant tension between seemingly opposing dynamics. Seeking a balance between the two animates our lives hour by hour, day by day and year by year.

We must confess that, in seeking that “balance,” we often place our thumbs on the scale of memory, for we cannot conceive of ourselves without memory. Without remembering, we simply do not exist in any way that makes sense to us – personally or collectively.

“I” am the sum of my experiences but it is only by remembering those experiences that they have meaning. Even so, we can appreciate that it is possible to remember “too much” and that if we truly remembered everything our lives would be as overwhelming as it is for the character in the Borges story.

So, as much as we need to remember we also need to forget. Optimally, we need to find the perfect balance between all we want and need to remember and all we want and need to forget.

Given the importance of memory and forgetfulness in our lives, it is small wonder that the Torah speaks to both.

Torah relates several events that are always to be remembered, including the Revelation at Sinai, the punishment inflicted upon Miriam for speaking ill of her brother, the Sabbath and, finally, we are to remember Amalek – not just Amalek, the evil king, but Amalek, the evil impulse within each human being.

With these four explicit commands to remember, the Torah emphasizes the importance of memory to our individual and communal character. We remember Sinai and our redemption from Egypt for those events define God’s grace to us and our commitment to our shared ethos. We remember Miriam’s punishment to appreciate the damage lashon hara can do our communal bonds. We remember the Sabbath for in her peace we gain an insight into the holiness God wants for us.

And Amalek? We remember Amalek because that is the memory that safeguards us.

We often think of remembering as being equal to “not forgetting.” That is not the Torah understanding. “Not forgetting” is not the same as remembering. Torah memory is an active mental state through an act or a personal effort.

Truly recalling Sinai demands a reliving of the event. Remembering Sinai can only be accomplished through personal participation in Torah learning. To remember Miriam’s transgression some suggest that the verse detailing Miriam’s punishment be recited daily after pray­ing. The Ari noted that in reciting the words L’hodot l’cha prior to the Sh’ma, one should recall that one’s mouth was created not only to praise, but also to refrain from lashon hara. In doing so, he actively recalls that which occurred to Miriam.

Remembering the Sabbath demands a daily declaration that today is the first or fourth day towards the Sabbath. Or, on the weekdays if one acquired food or other goods that would be appropriate or befitting for Shabbat, a declaration should be verbalized – li’chvod Shabbat, “in honor of the Sabbath.”

The Torah is clear about human frailty. When telling us to remember, it does not rely on the whims and fragility of our memory. Rather, the Torah seeks active rein­forcement, lest we forget.

Of these four commands to remember, the first three bring with them grace and uplift. The fourth command, to remember evil, presents us with a challenge because there is no proactive expression to accompany it.

At the conclusion of parashat Ki Tetze, before we are taught to recall the evil of Amalek, the Torah sets the uncompromising stan­dards of just and perfect weights and measures. It seems, at first glance, to be a strange juxtaposition. What is the connec­tion between weights and measures and Amalek? Rashi notes that, “if you use false weights and measures, then you must anticipate the provocation of the enemy.” In other words, one can’t simply preach, teach, or recall that one’s evil impulse and desire must be overcome. Passivity is no match for our inner Amalek. Rather, he teaches, more than just remembering through the absence of forgetfulness, one must act and react each hour, each day with honesty and integrity, with perfect and just weights and measures.

It is sometimes a burden to remember, but we can be sure that if we do not remember the Amalek, the Amalek will remember us!

It is a burden to have our days darkened by the recollection of evil. But looking away, forgetting, is not an option. We may want to forget evil but evil never forgets us. It never sleeps, it is always metastasizing.

We forget Amalek at our peril.

The Torah teaches that, “Amalek happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God.” Devarim 25:18

Amalek takes the hindmost first, but is never satisfied to stop there. As Pastor Martin Niemoller wrote in response to the atrocities of the Holocaust:

First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Eventually, Amalek comes for everyone.

When confronted by Amalek, no hand-wringing or moralizing will suffice. There is only the absolute imperative to remember, for to “not remember” is to invite doom. We must remember so that we respond to Amalek without hesitation or diplomatic niceties. We remember so that we can actively, “wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven - you shall not forget.”

Amalek – evil – does not simply disappear.

Evil never gives in. We must remember and remember and remember. Amalek lives even today. Only by remembering – actively remembering – can we be prepared. To forget is to perish. And yet, too often, we do forget. And that is entirely on us.

In his August 1974 sermon An Unforgettable Devar Torah, Rabbi Norman Lamm Z’l references the Hidushei HaRim who taught that forgetfulness depends on man. Forgetfulness, does not mean simply “misplacing” facts or names. It means a forgetfulness that empties the mind, that finds ego and haughtiness where holiness and modesty should be.

We forget, he taught, when we are preoccupied with ourselves. Filled with conceit, we “falter and forget.” And, forgetting, we are vulnerable. Rabbi Lamm goes on to remind us of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s teaching that, “…the root of all evil is that we forget who we are, our higher selves. We turn cynical and act as if man is only an amalgam of base drives, of ego-satisfaction, of sexual and material grasping. We forget that, in addition, man is capable of noble action, of sublime sentiment, of self-sacrifice. When we forget that, we are in desperate trouble.”

This then is the Amalek against which we must remember – our own failings and tendencies toward baseness rather than holiness. By remembering, the Torah is teaching us to avoid the cynicism of our base nature. By remembering, the Torah is teaching us that we are capable of nobility and grace, of holiness.

When we forget that we quickly learn that Amalek not only pounces but that he has resided within us, awaiting a moment to bring us down.