Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Parashat Ki Tesse: Memory


Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tesse 2020

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As Moshe continued his final sermon to Am Yisrael, he reflected upon their battle against Amalek, which took place forty years earlier:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt, how he fell upon you on the way and cut down all the stranglers, with you famished and exhausted, and he did not fear God (Devarim 25:17-18)

Foreseeing the future conquest of the Land of Israel, Moshe commanded:

You shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens, you shall not forget. (25:19)

Interestingly, the God had already taught about the “memory” of Amalek in His command to Moshe immediately after the battle:

And God said to Moshe: “Write this down as a remembrance in a record…that I will surely wipe out the name of Amalek from under the heavens.” (Shemot 17:14)

In the initial telling, it was God who would wipe out the name of Amalek, with the “memory” of Amalek stored in writing. The command now voiced by Moshe, in contrast, placed the responsibility of “memory” and destruction upon the people, with no mention of any written text.


Let us consider, for a moment, a basic difference between “history” and “memory. The contemporary Jewish thinker Yehuda Kurtzer wrote, “History liberates while memory obligates.”[1] We study history in order to learn from the past about how to act in the future. Realizing that history often repeats itself, we use our knowledge of it to break free of previous mistakes in similar contexts. But memory is different. Consider, for example, the way that memory of trauma or suffering controls our minds and actions. And since the memory may never be erased, we turn to therapy and psychoanalysis in attempt to, at the very least, reinterpret its harmful influence. While history informs, memory commands.


History is an external force which we use to our advantage. Memory is an internal reality which takes advantage of us. I’m reminded in this context of a story that is told about R. Haim Volper, a student of the great Magid of Mezeritch, who once lodged at an inn where a young Lithuanian rabbi was staying. The Lithuanian rabbi was curious about the teachings and traditions of the Magid of Mezertitch, who was well-known as a Hasidic legend. He waited for the Volper Rebbe to fall asleep, and quickly rifled through his suitcase, hoping to find some writings from the Magid. “Can I help you?” the Volper asked, awakened by the sound of an intruder in his room. After the rabbi admitted his intentions, the Rebbe quipped, “Writings?! There are no writings! Everything the great Magid taught was etched into our hearts!”[2] History is written in the static pages of a book and preserved as an eternal lesson. Memory, however, is “etched onto the heart,” constantly guiding its bearer on the road ahead.


Following Am Yisrael’s early fight against Amalek, God commanded Moshe to record the war as history – “Write this down as a remembrance in a record.” The history would affect the people’s future perspective, providing guidance for life ahead. But it wouldn’t command any forthright action from the people. Moshe’s final words shifted that directive. They taught that the battle against Amalek was not merely a historical event; it was a memory. And memory has a life of its own. It actively lives on with its bearer, determining their future course of events and forcing their decisions. Moshe thus taught that memory of the war with Amalek demands action – “You shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek.”


Moshe’s method for instructing to remember and seek the destruction of Amalek sheds a broader light onto a life governed by Torah. It teaches that the Torah is more than just a book of history which provides perspective and direction. It is a “living memory” which determines our existence and decides our actions.

[1] Yehuda Kurtzer, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (Waltham, MA, 2012), pg. 30.

[2] See Dovid’l Weinberg, Birth of the Spoken Word: Personal Prayer as the Goal of Creation (Jerusalem, IS, 2020), pg. 293.