I do a lot of reading in my line of work, and I often cringe when I come upon an oxymoron. Two people want to be “alone together.” Someone is forced to make the “only choice.” A retiree is being given a “farewell reception.” Sometimes the phrase, an inherent contradiction, is designed to draw your attention with its very awkwardness, or to add a dramatic flourish. In our case, it’s to teach us an important lesson.
In this week’s parashah, Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), Moses is cruising through a whole host of mitzvot involving personal relationships. But the final three verses stand alone, as Moses retreats back to the early days of his leadership:
“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!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
Now there’s an oxymoronic phrase for you. We are told, on the one hand, zachor, “remember,” and lo tishkach, “do not forget.” But we also are commanded to timcheh et zecher, “blot out the memory.” How does God expect us to do both?
Zachor is something Jews seem to do naturally. Remember it all. Never forget. We build monuments and museums detailing the darkest times in our people’s history so that humanity will “remember” what great evil humans can do. It has become almost an obsession to “not forget,” especially when eyewitnesses to the Shoah are passing away and today’s generation once again presumes it could never happen in our lifetime.
But what about the other extreme? What if we forget about zachor and focus only on the command to timcheh et zecher, “blot out the memory”? What happens when we pretend as though something tragic and frightening has never happened at all? Holocaust denial is the most obvious illustration. But we face the same temptation in everyday life.
That was the world in which I found myself during my battle seventeen years ago with breast cancer. It was the “C” word, whispered behind one’s hand and not to be discussed in polite company. One woman I knew who also was going through treatments refused to acknowledge the disease ravaging her body. If you asked her, she’d just say she was “fine” when clearly she was not fine. Her posture, her movement, her resignation, gave her away.
Obsession on one hand, denial on the other. We who face the challenges of life-threatening illness can embrace either extreme. We can let our illness define us and surrender to it, or we can pretend it doesn’t exist and allow it sneak up on us as Amalek did. Neither one alone is an answer. The secret to these three verses is to understand them as one single command. That’s what the Rabbis did when they selected them as the special reading for Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance (Esther 7:1-10; 8:15-17) that precedes our spring festivals of Purim, Passover, and Shavuot, when we tell our stories of danger, liberation, and freedom under God’s covenant.
And why did the Rabbis make this selection? To deliver this message: Timcheh et zecher-blot out the memory-as it exists as an obstacle to pursuing your goals and your dreams. And, at the same time, zachor, lo tishkach. “Remember, do not forget,” that it is this very memory of challenge and triumph that makes you strong and gives your life purpose.
But why does Moses invoke the specter of Amalek now, just before the Israelites are about to go into the Promised Land? After all, they’ve defeated the odds and a host of powerful kings. Why should Amalek be different?
Perhaps Amalek, even now, is no longer an individual, but an archetype. After all, rabbis and commentators will later use him as the evil prototype of mortal enemies from Haman to Hitler. But let’s take it one step farther: Perhaps Amalek is no longer an external threat. Moses uses him as a symbol of an inner illness-like the plagues with which God struck the Israelites when they rebelled-that could sneak up on them when they least expected it, when they thought the path was finally clear and success was assured.
I think Amalek represents something inside each one of us. Maybe it’s a disease of the mind-depression or fear of failure on one hand, arrogance or immodesty on the other. Maybe it’s a disease of the body, like cancer, heart disease, or any other debilitating illness. Amalek is the disease that strikes-not when we are at our most vulnerable-but when we think we’re doing okay, like the ancient Israelites who had just left slavery behind and were on the road to freedom.
Rashi, after all, describes the “stragglers in your rear” (Deuteronomy 25:18) as “those who were enfeebled because they had stumbled into sin, so that the cloud [of God’s presence] spit them out.” And Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach (the Hizkuni, mid-thirteenth century France) translates verse 18 to mean, not that Amalek was undeterred by fear of God, but rather that he was able to act because the Israelites themselves were undeterred by fear of God. Had the Israelites kept faith as they should have, says Hizkuni, Amalek could not have taken them.1
Timcheh et zecher . . . v’lo tishkach . Not an oxymoron, but a comprehensive plan of action. If we obsess on Amalek’s hold on us or if we try to deny his very presence, then the Amalek inside us will win. Only by following the spirit of the Torah-to remove Amalek as an obstacle to the rest of our lives and never to forget the battle we have waged against him-can we possibly beat him.
1. Michael Carasik, ed., trans., annot., The Commentators’ Bible: Deuteronomy. The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2015), pp. 170-171
Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. candidate in Rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she was ordained in 1999.