By Jacob Chatinover
“Forgetfulness leads to exile, in Memory is the secret to redemption.” –Baal Shem Tov
As field staff, I have often talked about the ways communal memory in Judaism impacts the stories we tell ourselves and the scope of what we see as possible for our futures. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Memory, because of a special reading appended to the end of this week’s parsha. We are told:
“17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your path as you came out of Egypt; 18 how he met you in your path, and attacked those at the rear, all the infirm in the back, when you were faint and weary; not fearing God. 19 So when the Lord your God gives you rest from any enemy all around you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you as a portion to inherit it: You must erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven; Do not forget.” (Deut. 25:17-19)
In this passage, we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to the Jewish people as they came out of Egypt. Reading this passage constitutes a Speech Act – reading it in community reinforces the performance of memory that is commanded in the passage. Historically, people would go to great lengths to hear this passage read aloud in community every year, thus cementing the passage in communal memory.
In this passage, we are also commanded to keep with us a painful memory of an attack by an enemy. Why would we want to hold on to such a traumatic memory forever? And why are we commanded to remember and not to forget? I think one lesson is that we can’t heal by trying to forget. When we try to forget our traumas by shutting down painful memories or experiences, the most we can do is delay a painful feeling until we are in a place with enough support to handle it. Some moments in life are not the right time to relive your worst day. Hiking through a snowstorm or sitting in a business meeting, it is okay to develop techniques that allow you to push through something. Once you are safely in shelter, you can debrief everything that came up for you. I’ve seen many people try to push memory off forever.
It is natural to want distance from pain and it is normal to feel impatient with your own healing process. Some of our students have been through experiences so difficult that I cannot begin to comprehend them and I can understand how a person would resist delving into those memories intentionally. Some of their experiences made them feel like they had no control over their lives and eroded their sense of trust. It can be hard to feel like any scenario is ever safe enough to allow you to purposefully remember. While I have not experienced our students’ lives, I cannot tell them that feeling pain is worth it, that the only way out is through. Because I don’t know what their pain feels like. I can only try to create the support that enables them to choose to feel and to remember.
Studies in trauma therapy indicate that traumatic memories never fully fade but our ties to them do weaken over time. Each time they are brought up, if we can process through them and develop healthy coping strategies, their hold on us wanes. This is how I understand the command “erase the memory of Amalek” – nothing is fully erased, only the top layer is removed. The reshima (impression) remains of every experience. The next words modify the command, “Do not forget,” which can also be read: “You will not/cannot forget.” Creating ritual to intentionally work through difficult memories can help us process them. In the structure we create at BaMidbar, and in the structures that students will create for themselves when they graduate, we designate time and sanctify space in which we can process our pain. Reading Parshat Zachor in community on the Shabbat before Purim is one example of this. Let us all take this time to allow ourselves to feel and to remember, and let our community heal as well.