When I was young, I was packed with fears. Some of my earliest memories are standing on the top of the slide, afraid of the big dogs who came to the park I visited daily with my babysitter. I remember sitting in my stroller, barking loudly back at the dogs that came to harass me. I even have a recurring dream of flying in the sky when the yappy dogs across the street – called Honey and Pepper – bothered me too much.
Those memories are visceral. They are embedded inside me, so much that I can still smell the flowers, feel the wind and hear their barking on a sensory level. That fear stayed within me for years. I was petrified of dogs, afraid to visit an unfamiliar house where there might be a dog, scared to walk down the street or visit the park, I never wanted to travel overseas. I spent thousands of dollars in therapy, from EFT to hypnotherapy, trying to isolate those memories and remove them from my psyche.
The definition of memory, according to Wikipedia, is “the faculty of the brain by which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved when needed. Memory is vital to experiences, it is the retention of information over time for the purpose of influencing future action.”
Our memories aren’t just a past experience that happened once, and then we move on. Our memories work to inform everything we do. They are the lines of programming code that define our operating systems, and how we do things over and over again. When we remember, one small trigger – like the scent of our grandmother’s perfume, or the taste of a childhood dish – can bring back a flood of related emotions.
Today in our Torah reading, we are told Zachor: to remember. In the Torah portion of Zachor, one of the several ‘special portions” of the year, that we read the week before Purim, we learn of a traumatic experience from our collective childhood as a Jewish people, not long after our collective trauma of slavery in Egypt. When the tribe of Amalek attacked the Israelite people, the war was bloody and the pain hit deep. We are told for the ensuing generations to ensure that Amalek never rears up among the Jewish people ever again. We are reminded to remember; we are exhorted never to forget. Amalek, our collective trauma, is frozen within our veins, never to leave.
We are being asked to stand here today in shul, and we are told to remember. Not only are we told to remember, but we are also reminded not to forget.
It’s not enough to keep these memories in our mind. We are asked to retain those memories in their freshness, not to forget them.
When we work with trauma, we often want to do everything we can to forget. To wish that the old programming wouldn’t show up every time something challenging comes up. That we don’t speak to our children the same way our parents spoke to us; or react to authority the same way we reacted to a third grade teacher. It can be in our deepest hopes to forget everything that’s ever happened to us, to wish that we can move on and live free of our history, our memory, our pain.
But there is something powerful in the lesson of Amalek that made it such a pivotal moment for us as a nation, and that requires us to remember. It isn’t only in the physical war – it is in the spiritual battle.
Our rabbis say that Amalek is chastised more than anyone else who attacked the Jews, because of their audacity. Coming on the heels of the Exodus from Egypt, we were invincible. Like a piping hot bath, nobody wanted to jump in and get themselves burned. But Amalek, audacious Amalek, came in and dared to jump in. Once they messed with the Israelite people, we became the target of enemies ever since.
As a nation having only recently tasted the sweetness of victory and emancipation, we were in the desert, on the road. We were weak, and somewhat divided. We were starting to doubt, and starting to question God’s ways as we trekked through an increasingly hostile looking desert.
It was only when we were weak “v’atah ayef v’yigah, v’lo yerei elokim” – that we were susceptible to Amalek’s wiles. Amalek is what happened only moments after victory – but the people were weak, and weary, and did not fear God.
In the Hebrew system of numerology, known as Gematria, the name Amalek is equivalent to the numerical value of the word – Safek- meaning doubt. Amalek is what happened when we began to lose our faith, our trust in the Divine path set in front of us.
Our sages teach us that this empowerment by leadership was a reminder to have faith and trust in the Divine, to stand strong in our resolve. To remember that when we are dedicated to our traditions, to the Torah that we stand for, we can move forward and be victorious.
The place Rephidim where the attack happened is not just a place – it relates to the word “rafui”, to be weak. Amalek chose us at our weakest point, at a space of vulnerability that was not the sacred vulnerability we spoke of last night – but a vulnerability of weakness that came from doubt. From lack of resolve in our own identity. From an ideological war against our very values.
In order to move forward, to eradicate this from our midst, it’s not enough to forget it ever happened and charge on. Today, we read the Parsha of Zachor because we have to remember what we went through in the past, in order to march forward into our present.
We are going through a time of immense challenge for the Jewish people, in America, in Israel, and all over the world. We are being forced to look at the monsters that dwell among us, and our own personal shadows. We are looking at the darkness and it seems so bitter, we’d rather just forget. It can be easier to shrug it off and say that this isn’t who we are, and we don’t know how it relates to us.
But we are being told today, Zachor. Remember. Al Tishkach, do not forget.
When I wanted to work through my old phobias, I learned that the answer was not forgetting them. They would always be a part of me, something that had taught me infinitely more than the pleasant easy memories. These memories helped me become who I am, and remind me what I am capable of when I step into my true power. When I recognized that my fear of dogs, my fear of speaking out, my fear of owning my role as a soon-to-be-Rabbi, were all part of old fears of being seen, being loved and being accepted, I learned to reprogram those old lines of code. To allow those memories to remain, but for the experiences that result from them to change. I will never forget, and I will always remember.
And when I do, it fills me with resolve.
Today, we are told to Zachor, Remember.
Remember your moments of weakness and struggle, remember how you almost didn’t make it. Remember how only with true faith in God, in the Divine path we were set on originally as a people, were we able to win that battle.
We are told Al Tishkach – do not forget.
Don’t forget that it’s doubt, it’s Safek, it’s the Amalek syndrome that almost got to us that time, and every time. That lack of belief in our own abilities, that lack of trust in our own Torah and the teachings it has within us. Those values that are here to show us where to go, when we remember that they are here for us.
Timche – we are reminded to erase the name of Amalek. To erase the doubt that rises inside each and every one of us when we want to step forward, to stand with our arms raised high as Moses did, and win the spiritual battles we face every day. We are told to Remember the power that we have when we align ourselves with truth, with the Divine, with the ability to succeed. We are told to Never Forget that this doubt can sneak up on us at anytime, anywhere – on the road, when we are weak and tired.
I bless us all that on this day, as we greet the joyous holiday of Purim this week, we are able to find the strength within us to take on this battle. To become spiritual warriors against the creeping doubt of Amalek, and stand strong in our Jewishness, in our values, in our Torah and in our dedication to performing Mitzvot to be a light to those who are still steeped in darkness and bitterness. To remember our past while looking to our future, and to never forget those who have struggled, suffered and sacrificed themselves so we can continue to move forward with our arms raised high.