A Sabbath Message: Purim Part I – Remembrance Before Celebration

“To be a Jew is to be a link in the chain of the generations, a character in a drama that began long before we were born and will continue long after our death. Memory is essential to identity – so Judaism insists. To be a Jew is to know that the history of our people lives on in us.”

– Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020)

This week, we celebrate the first full Sabbath of the Hebrew month of Adar, the only month during which the Talmud tells us “we increase in our joy.” Last Shabbat, as the new moon of Adar rose, this time of happiness entered to remind us of the power of this most special month in our tradition. Perhaps it is difficult to imagine this commandment for joy during the current pandemic. But on the other hand, I say it is a perfect time to consider this in the exact moment we find ourselves. According to our sages, the name of the month, Adar, is linked to the word adir, which means strength and power, two important characteristics we can choose to find within ourselves right now. Calling upon our power and the strength we have within us, we can find gratitude and even joy in those things we are lucky to have and experience every day – good food to eat, a sunset to enjoy, the phone conversation with a good friend. In addition, we are joyful as we recall the history of our people and how we were delivered from certain destruction in the Purim story. According to the book of Esther, it was during this month that our fate was “reversed from grief to joy” (9:22). Thus, this is no ordinary joy – it is the joy of transformation, from bitter to sweet. Perhaps this is how we can reverse our own current experience.

This Sabbath before the holiday of Purim is also given a special designation on the Jewish calendar as Shabbat Zachor – The Sabbath of Remembrance, therefore opening the holiday on a somber, but important tone. What exactly is the nature of this special “remembrance” every year on this Sabbath before such a joyous holiday? We are told early on in the Book of Esther, the Biblical book containing the Purim story, that the evil character of the tale, Haman, is likely a descendant of Amalek, the most pervasive and brutal enemy of our people throughout time. As a people, we are pledged to continue to work for the end of oppression of the weak everywhere and in every circumstance, even if we are delivered in the case of the Purim story. For we know that this victory should not blind us to the persistence of evil and hatred in the world. Thus, on this Sabbath before we celebrate, we are told it is a mitzvah to hear the added reading of the three verses dealing with the story of Amalek from the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 25, verses 17-19. Here, we are asked to remember what Amalek did to us on our journey when we left Egypt, that unafraid of the Divine, he took us by surprise on the march, and attacked those most weak in the rear of the line. And in the final verse, we are given perhaps the most difficult task of all: we must blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven – and at the same time, we must never forget. Indeed, a very unique type of remembering.

 In our modern world, a “forgive and forget” mentality often gives memory and the act of remembering a bad name. As a people, Zachor – Remembrance is an intrinsic part of our tradition, woven into many of our daily and Sabbath blessings and rituals. We say Yizkor for those we have lost and promise to Zachor! Never Forget! – those who perished in the Holocaust. And yet, remembrance is a mitzvah that many of us have an issue with – it makes us uncomfortable; we feel we are living in the past, it is too painful, and for some, it collides with the idea of moving forward. There becomes almost an aversion to memory. Some argue that preserving memories of atrocities hinder the ability for reconciliation, and there can often even be an attack on those who choose to remember, with “forgive and forget” the chosen way. But after knowing and working with Holocaust Survivors for over 30 years, I have come to strongly believe that does not have to be the way. Reconciliation with the past can come through the act of remembering, and as my friends have often told me, one can even decide to forgive, but we also must never forget.

So, what is the lesson of Shabbat Zachor for us today? My friend and teacher, Rabbi Moshe Bryski once said: “Remember is the opposite of dismember. Forgetting dismembers your present from your past. Remembering sews them back together. With a seamless tie to our past, we are well on our way to the future.” Thus, the primary lesson of this Sabbath before Purim is to understand the role of memory in our lives, as Jews and as members of society. Remembrance is the key to preventing recurrence, but it is also the key to who we are and where we have been. True reconciliation comes through repentance and remembrance. Confronting the evils of the past is the way we create a moral society. Often, memory is painful, but it is often what is most needed to see where we have been, and to learn where we must go in the future. And not confronting our past is the worst kind of apathy, which is an evil in itself. Yes, we must blot out the memory of evil, while at the same time, commit to never forgetting it.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom – may you all enjoy a memorable and peaceful Sabbath,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service


Image caption: In this 1945 Purim greeting card, we see a quote from the Josephus version of the Purim story, the 1st century Roman-Jewish historian who often portrayed events differently – and in this case, made sure the evil Haman, was seen as definitely being a direct descendant of the Amalekites.