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Remembering and Forgetting

Remembering is a central tenet of Judaism. So is forgetting.

We often think that remembering is a central tenet of Judaism, and to some degree this is true. What we often forget is that forgetting is just as important. 

We find ourselves now between the poles of Purim and Passover. Purim, which we celebrated on Thursday,  gives us the mandate to remember Amalek, the biblical nation from which Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is descended. (The biblical verses describing this requirement are always read on the Shabbat before Purim.) Passover, which we’ll celebrate about a month from now, gives us the mandate to remember the Exodus from Egypt

In the Torah, the central object of our memory is God. We remember God as the creator. We remember the Exodus from Egypt for God’s saving grace. We remember the patriarchs and matriarchs and what God did for them. This kind of remembering is aimed at binding us to the creator and the divine covenant. 

The one glaring exception is the two-pronged mandate to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites: to remember and to forget. The relevant (and somewhat twisted) passages from which this derives are found in the 25th chapter of Deuteronomy: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way” (Deuteronomy 25:17) and “Erase [forget?] the memory of Amalek from the world” (25: 19). The biblical text tells us both to remember what Amalek did and to erase that remembrance. 

These passages are a bridge between the biblical and rabbinic notions of remembering. While the rabbis adopt remembering the Exodus from scripture, it is the memory of the destruction of the Temple that is central for them. They shifted the object of memory from redemption to calamity. The importance of this shift is illustrated in a talmudic passage about the failed insurrection against the Romans led by the Israelite general Bar Kochba. The Talmud teaches that Bar Kochba could have been the messiah but for the fact that his generation was guilty of one sin: They did not properly mourn (or remember) the destruction of the Temple. 

Purim is an expression of the ambiguity of remembering and forgetting. Twice on the holiday we read the Scroll of Esther, which recalls the deliverance of the Jews from calamity. But there is also a tradition of getting so drunk one cannot distinguish between the righteous Mordechai and the evil Haman. This tradition evokes not memory, but its opposite. Only by forgetting (or “erasing”) can we reach the place where Haman and Mordechai are indistinguishable. At that moment, we actually forget what Haman did to us, and thus fulfill the obligation of Purim.

The remembrance of God’s redemptive promise and the remembrance of the destruction are the two poles of the Jewish covenantal existence. And forgetting, the lesson of Purim, is a necessary way to live between those two poles. 

For Jews to be part of the world, we must balance these two motifs of remembering and forgetting. If all we do is remember, we become slaves to memory. And if all we do is forget, we erase the legacy of the past, making the covenant simply a matter of nostalgia.

The current war in Ukraine puts these two notions into sharp relief — and Jews, in particular, into a complex position. On the one hand, many Jews (myself included) are tied to Ukraine through family. Ukraine housed some of the greatest cities of Jewish life, cities whose names still resonate as centers of learning and creativity, both religious and secular: Chernobyl, Berdichev, Bratslav, Odessa. 

But Ukraine was also the site of some of the most horrific pogroms in our history, its soil is soaked with Jewish blood. Some say Ukrainians during World War II acted more brutally even than the Nazis. That was 75 years ago, but the passage of time has not stopped many from holding societies accountable for their actions. After all, we are commanded to remember/forget Amalek even millennia later.

Our support for Ukraine requires both remembering and forgetting. Our empathy for an innocent country being attacked evokes in us the memory of bygone years of a robust Jewish life. It also requires us to forget the Jewish tragedy that occurred in those same places. To support Ukraine, we must remember that is where many of our ancestors lived robust Jewish lives and also forget the tragedy that many experienced there. 

At this tense moment when the remembering/forgetting of Amalek on Purim transitions to remembering the Exodus on Passover, our biblical and rabbinic models of memory are instructive. To live as a people among the family of nations, we must learn to temper our memory of the Temple with the memory of the Exodus. And sometimes we must also forget. 

As we move from Purim to Passover, from one kind of remembering to another, may we never forget to remember — and always remember to forget.

Author’s Note: This essay is dedicated to Annette Yoshiko Reed, who has taught me the art of forgetting.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on March 19, 2022. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

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