Tzaraat and Memory

Miriam's skin condition and the war with Amalek, Amnon, and Moab are all examples of memory.


Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

The centrality of memory to Jewish self-understanding emerges with great vividness in parashat Ki Tetze, which repeatedly enjoins us to remember events in ways that affect ongoing behavior and practice: ”Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore … observe this commandment” (24:22, 18). “In cases of a skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the levitical priests instruct you…. urj women's commentaryRemember what your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt” (24:8-9). ”Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt … you shall blot out the memory of Amalek” (25:17, 19). Cleally, the major events of the Jewish past are not simply history but living, active memory that continues to shape Jewish identity in the present. Through telling the story of our past, we learn who we are and must become.

In insisting on the significance of memory for identity, the palashah shows that memory can serve a wide valiety of purposes and can be used to support modes of being that seem to conflict with each other. The memory of enslavement in Egypt is repeatedly yoked with injunctions insisting upon justice and compassion: “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn” (24:17). “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (24:19). Because Jews once knew hunger and experienced what it was like to dwell as strangers on the margins of society, we are commanded to create a society in which the marginal are cared for and the hungry are provided with food.

Memories of the deeds of the Ammonites and Moabites and the perfidy of Amalek become the foundation for opposite injunctions. those concerning exclusion and vengeance. Because the Ammonites and Moabites did not provide Israel with food in the wilderness, the descendants of these nations should be excluded from God’s congregation, even ro the tenth generation (23:3-4). Because Amalek cut down stragglers in the line of malch when Israel left Egypt hungry and tired, the memory of the Amalekites should be entirely obliterated (25:17-19).

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Judith Plaskow is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. She is the author of the landmark work Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, and has written and edited a number of other volumes on the topics of contemporary religious thought and feminist theology.

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