It’s all in the kishkes

By Rabbi Cary Kozberg, Temple Sholom, Springfield

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God…you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!” — Deut. 25:17-19.

These verses are read as the maftir for the Shabbat preceding Purim, and give that particular Shabbat its name: Shabbat Zakhor (Remember). The commandment to obliterate Amalek’s memory is the origin of drowning out the name of Haman, Amalek’s descendant, on Purim: The curious paradox of being commanded to remember what Amalek did, while also being commanded to obliterate Amalek’s memory has evoked many explanations over the centuries.

But an additional curiosity is the seeming redundancy of the words that begin and end this section: “remember” and “you shall not forget.”

At first glance, these two phrases seem to merely emphasize the need to ensure that Amalek’s treachery is perpetuated in our collective memory.

But to our Sages of the Talmud, who affirmed that there are no redundancies in the Torah, these two phrases are really two separate commands: remember — with one’s mouth, and do not forget — in one’s heart.

In other words, memories have staying power only if they are paid more than lip service. Authentic remembering requires that memories be assimilated into our hearts and souls, in order to give us the courage to properly prepare for possible repeat catastrophes.

Given recent events — Pittsburgh, the torching of a yeshiva in upstate New York, a closer-to-home vandalizing of the synagogue in Lima, and despite the initial expressions of sympathy and moral outrage following Pittsburgh, a significant recent increase in unapologetic antisemitic rhetoric from high profile activists and government leaders, as well as the disinclination of many to condemn it — it seems that we as a community would do well to reflect on this teaching.

Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

In a recent Times of Israel blog, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt stated that, despite the events in Pittsburgh, this “perfect storm of antisemitism”— coming from the far left, the far right and radical Islam — “is not just brewing but is upon us, and too many people in the Jewish community are woefully unprepared or unwilling to honestly address it.”

Apparently, Dr. Lipstadt would agree that “remember…do not forget” deserves but has not yet received our serious consideration.

So what would a serious consideration of “remember/do not forget” entail: not merely as a mantra but as part of strategy to prevent or at least prepare for possible (God forbid) reoccurrences of Pittsburgh?

Space does not permit a full consideration. However, crafting a meaningful response to this question might begin with reference to the Purim story itself.

Contrary to the perception of many, it doesn’t end with Haman’s execution. Getting rid of Haman did not rescind his annihilation decree.

The only way the Jews could prevent their own extermination was to defend themselves, which they received royal permission to do.

Anticipating the response of the Maccabees several centuries later, when things got really dicey, the Jews had to resort to physical force in order to protect themselves and preserve their way of life.

Emphasizing this point, the Book of Esther reports that the Jews’ use of physical force did not include plunder; only measures purely for self-defense were utilized.

Noteworthy is the fact that although the stories associated with Chanukah and Purim focus not on God’s intervention but on the responses of the Jews themselves (the Book of Esther never mentions God), nevertheless our Sages prescribed that the Al Hanissim prayer — expressing gratitude to God for fighting our battles and defeating our enemies — be recited on both of these holidays.

For them there was/is no contradiction: Divine assistance is available when Jews not only remember the past with their mouths, but also assimilate those memories deep into their hearts — into their kishkes (guts) in order to appropriately respond to — and hopefully prevent — whatever challenges and tragedies may loom in the future.

We do not know what is in store for us, but we must prepare for all eventualities.

Unlike our ancestors in the Diaspora who were non-citizens in the lands in which they lived, living under many legal restrictions and having to depend on the goodwill of non-Jewish authorities, we are full citizens in this country, with the right to respond in ways that our non-citizen ancestors could only imagine.

As we American Jews respond to current challenges and prepare for whatever else may be in store, may we be blessed with the same discernment and courage which blessed the Jews of Shushan and the Maccabees.

May we truly understand that it is easy to remember with our mouths, but more importantly, we must “never forget,” with a resolve that comes from deep within our hearts, from deep within our kishkes.

To read the complete March 2019 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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