Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
Remembering and the Fear of God
February 23, 2013
There’s a story about two men met on the city street in the evening who decided to go out for a drink. Hours passed, and it came time for them to part ways and go home, but one of the men would not leave. He exhibited a string tied around a finger.
“I don’t dare to go home,” he explained. “There’s something my wife told me to do, without fail, and to make sure I wouldn’t forget, she tied this string around my finger. But for the life of me I can’t remember what the thing was I am supposed to do. And I don’t dare to go home!”
A few days later the two men met again.
“Well,” the one asked, “did you finally remember what that string was to remind you of?”
The other showed great gloom in his expression, as he replied:
“I didn’t go home until the next night, just because I was scared, and then my wife told me what the string was for all right–she certainly did!” There was a note of pain in his voice. “The string was to remind me to be sure to come home early.”
The story is a light-hearted reminder of the tension between remembering and forgetting. On Shabbat Zakhor, we experience this same tension. The special maftir reading is from Deuteronomy 25:17-19. We are reminded of the wicked machinations of Amalek who attacked the Israelites from behind, preying on the weakest and most vulnerable members of the society. The full text is as follows:
17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 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. 19Therefore, 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!
We read this section on the Shabbat prior to Purim because Haman of the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek and is therefore an archetype of evil. The great irony of the Amalek portion is that we are told simultaneously to remember Amalek AND to blot out the name of Amalek.
There is another odd feature of the Amalek portion. There is ambiguity regarding the phrase in verse 18, v’lo yirei Elohim. The New Jewish Publication Society translation moves this phrase from the end of the sentence to the beginning and says: “[H]ow, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down the stragglers in your rear. The merit of this translation is that it makes clear that the wicked Amalek lacks fear of God, another way of saying they have no common decency. On the other hand, there’s a problem. Another way of reading verse 18, based on the actual phrasing in the Hebrew is: “And you were tired and weary and did not fear God.” In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to read the text in a way that says the Israelites did not fear God! How can this be? Was it that the stragglers lost faith, thus becoming vulnerable to Amalek? What kind of God would do such a thing?
According to Rabbi Jack Bloom in an article he published on this difficulty, he proposes that lo yirei Elohim does indeed refer to the Israelites. He writes: “Perhaps, at an Israelite army staff meeting, when an officer noted that there were those who trailed behind the camp, no junior officer or commanding general stood up to say, “We have stragglers out there; we have women and children, the famished and the weary, young and old who can’t keep up—we have to protect them somehow.
“No troops were deployed, no armed escort dispatched; no protection provided. The stragglers were not protected for the self-same reason the Amalekites attacked them. The Israelite high command had depersonalized their own people. They were the refuse, the impoverished, those no longer of any use in the long trek to Canaan. They were no longer of value. They did not matter. They had become other. They were depersonalized, left to perish in the desert, to be exterminated by Amalek. The Israelite leadership was lo yirei Elohim, ‘undeterred by fear of God.’”
We know that there are people in the world who have evil in their hearts and who do not fear God. To a large extent, their moral compass (or lack thereof) is out of our control. What we do control is ourselves and our actions. There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world of which Amalek may be an archetype. In response, we can actively choose to behave in a way befitting people who fear God.
A personal story sheds light on the Torah’s challenge to us. As many know, I’m very proud of my background in United Synagogue Youth, which was a transformative experience for me in my Jewish development. Last summer marked 25 years since I attended USY on Wheels, a cross-country bus tour. This coming summer marks 25 years since I attended USY Israel Pilgrimage. After some searching, I found a box this past week containing pictures and other memorabilia from both trips. I posted the official group pictures on Facebook and reached out to other participants of both trips with whom I was still in contact. In short order, dozens of people from both groups were in touch with one another, reminiscing and celebrating our virtual 25-year reunion. However, an interesting thing happened. As my USY on Wheels group was connecting to one another, some sad information emerged: out of the 45 of us who travelled together as teenagers 25 years ago, 3 of our group members are no longer with us. Three young adults in their 20’s and 30’s, one man and two women, succumbed to various illnesses over the last 20 years. At first, there was excitement and joy at the virtual reunion. Then, there was the realization of the losses and an outpouring of sadness. In response, this newly reconnected community came together to comfort one another. There was a sense of shared loss and support. For me, the experience drove home the point that there are terrible things that happen in the world that are beyond our control. Yet, our response determines whether or not the pain of the experience will pass.
On the High Holidays, one of the central prayers is Un’tane Tokef. The prayer lists many possible dreadful fates one might face: death by fire or water, hunger or thirst, etc. We are vulnerable creatures in a fragile world, and any of these things could happen to any of us. They are beyond our control. What is in our control is the next part of the prayer: “But repentance, prayer and righteousness can make the harshness of the decree pass.” It’s not that our actions can reverse history; but we can make the worst of the pain pass. We often can’t prevent tragedy such as illness, but we can control how we respond to it.
When we remember Amalek, we not only remember Amalek’s attack, we remember the response of the Israelites to this disaster. At least according to one reading of the text, the response was less than satisfactory. It made the disaster worse instead of less severe. Zakhor et asher as lekha Amalek, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” rings true today. It’s not just the physical attack, but also the osmosis of Amalek-like thinking into the psyche of the Israelites that dehumanized the most marginal members of their society at the time of their greatest need. Shabbat Zakhor is an annual check-in for us. Rather than bemoaning all of the disasters that have befallen us, our task should be to reach out and be present to those in pain. They can be people in synagogue, in our communities, our families and even, in our technological era, online communities. Let’s resolve this Shabbat Zakhor, that we will not marginalize others but remember and be present for those in need of support. May our renewed resolve usher in a joyous Purim.