I step out of my neighbor’s house and something about the evening air, angle of dim streetlights, and the general silence around, reminds me of the last time I was on the same stone steps. Back then, this past fall, I was talking to another friend about someone else. So now, in an instance, this third person, who has never been in this spot and whom I haven’t seen for some time, is right here with me.
Memory is such an amazing and at times strange thing. How do things travel in the brain? This Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor – Shabbat of Remember! – because of a special passage that is added to the regular reading which begins with this word. The passage, dealing with ‘Amalek’ and challenging on many levels, invites commentators to expand on it. But this morning (soon to be afternoon-), I am just interested in the fact the Torah thinks it can command us to “remember’, and to “not forget”. How is this possible, to command someone to remember?
There is a famous incident in Joseph’s life. Sitting in jail, he had an opportunity to explain dreams to his two cellmates, the baker and the butler. When the butler is promptly released, Joseph asks him: “within three days, Pharaoh will restore you to your office… remember me (zchartani) when it will be well with you, and do this kindness with me, and mention me (hizkiratani) unto Pharaoh…” (Genesis 40:14). Twice he asked; However, not only did the butler not remember Joseph, he also forgot him (40:23), which teaches that to remember and to not forget are not the same.
The issue of remembering things is so strong that there are “6 Zchirot” – 6 things to remember mentioned in the prayer book, like Shabbat, as it is said in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy…” (Exodus 20:7). What makes us remember and forget? And if we can control this, why do we lose our keys, forget our shopping list, miss a birthday etc?
It’s been said, “out of sight out of mind”, but is seeing something or somebody the only guarantee to remember them? Then we must wonder, how did the Jewish people continue to pray for Israel, a land they mostly have not lived on – and the majority never saw – for almost two thousand years?
In English “re-member” is to consciously make something a part of something else; In Hebrew too, per 19th century Rav Hirsch, z.ch.r means to “store (in memory)”. Also in Hebrew, zachar (literally “he remembered”) is the word for male, and again per Hirsch, “bearer of tradition”, someone who carries the seed from the past to the future, for while memory looks backwards, it also inevitably, looks forward.
Alternatively, sh.kh.ch – the root for forget, is related sh.k.h. which means to give someone drinks or to saturate. Therefore, forgetting means letting go through being taken up by other matters; mentally to be so full of something that there is no room for anything else.
If so, maybe what the Torah asks us is to be aware of what we put in our mind; to sort and clear out the unnecessary stuff and make sure we have room to keep that which is most important.