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How Can We Forget When We Are Commanded to Remember

Shabbat Zachor

March 19, 2016

 

A basic principle of both American and Jewish law is intent.

 

Take for example the story of the guy who called 911 while playing golf with his wife. He tells the police to come right away because he hit his wife in the head with a golf ball and she died.  When the police arrive and examine the woman lying dead on the ground of the 14th tee they notice that a second ball is lodged in her leg.  When asked how she could have been hit by two balls, the man calmly explains, “Oh, that was my mulligan.”

 

In this case, intent is going to be a critical factor to the court — and it won’t be helpful to the defendant.

 

We Jews have a word for intention. We call it kavanah.

 

Kavanah is very important. I try to impress upon every bar and bat mitzvah in the Chapel before the service how important kavanah is.  I elaborate upon the multiple meanings and explain that it means direction, focus, and concentration.  With all of this it is thus connected to the concept of spirituality.  I explain you always want to do a mitzvah with kavanah, and you always want to strive to pray with kavanah, meaning to be in the moment, to focus and concentrate on the prayers, and to have pure thoughts in your heart whenever you do something important for it enhances the meaning.

 

While our sages explain it is always preferable to perform a mitzvah with kavannah, they recommend performing a commandment even if you don’t have kavannah.  They advise that it is better to do the right thing than not do it at all.  Even if you lack the proper motivation, the act itself can still have a positive impact.  Pursuing the proper course of action, may very well lead you to ultimately want to perform the mitzvah for the right reason, and on a more regular basis.  If you do the right thing the feeling is more likely to eventually develop and could come later than if you do not do it at all.

 

I mention all of this this morning about intent and kavanah, because there is one mitzvah which can only be performed without kavanah, the mitzvah of shechichah.  The mitzvah of forgetting.

 

How can forgetting be a mitzvah?

 

The Torah mandates that owners of fields are required to do several things for the poor. For one, they must not harvest all the way to the end of the field.  This is called peot.

 

When something of the crop they are gathering drops from their hands, they must leave it on the ground. This is called leket.  All of this is so that the poor can come at a time when no one is there, so as to preserve their dignity, to gather these crops.   One is conscious of what one is doing when leaving a portion for the poor, or when not picking up something that has dropped.

 

But there is one other thing we are required to leave in our fields for the poor. If you forget to pick up a stalk, you don’t see it, or you overlook it as you go through a row, you cannot go back and pick it up.  That, too is left for the poor.  It is called shechichah.  And it is a mitzvah that our rabbis say is done without intent, for you cannot intentionally forget something.  You don’t realize you have forgotten it until after the fact.

 

I am reminded of what the late comedian David Brenner used to say about finding and forgetting things. “Have you ever noticed that people always say when looking for something:  ‘I found it in the last place I looked.’  Of course you would find it in the last place you looked!  Why would you keep on looking once you found it?!”

 

Or there is the story of the man who was 98 years old, who suddenly stopped coming to shul. After a little while the rabbi went to check up on the man and see what had happened to him.  He found he was still in good health, so he asked why after so many years of faithfully attending services he stopped coming.  The man explained, “I really thought my time was up years ago, then I hit 90, 95, 96. So I figured, God most have forgotten about me, so I stopped coming to shul because I don’t want to remind him about me.”

 

This aspect then of the mitzvah of forgetting is pertinent today, because today is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, the Shabbat when we are commanded to remember the Amalekites and what they did to our people. They were not the only enemies who fought against us when we came out of Egypt, but they were especially despicable because they attacked the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us.  The very people we Jews are commanded to care for, the very ones who other societies would forget and neglect, who would be left behind by others – these were the ones we believed were worthy of special attention and protection and care.  To attack them is to challenge the very premise of the essence of what it means to be a Jew.  And this is why Judaism abhors the Amalekites so much that we are told to never forget what they did to us.  Yet at the same time, we are commanded to blot out their memory, thereby presenting us with a contradiction.  We are to “remember what Amalek did to us” and also to “blot out the memory of Amalek.”  It is somewhat contradictory and difficult to both remember and forget.

 

How can you be commanded to remember to forget?

 

It is kind of like standing before you and telling you not to think of a pink elephant. Naturally all of you, or at least those who are still awake and listening, are now conjuring up images of a pink elephant.

 

Nahmanides, the Ramban, says that we are to remember in each and every generation so that we as a people do not forget the tragedy of what happened to us. Judaism is all about remembering who we are, what happened to us, and transmitting it to the generations that follow us.  This is what we do at Passover, on Purim, other holidays, and throughout the year.

 

All of which helps explain one of the reasons why most Jews are lukewarm to the candidacy of the first Jew to win a primary election for President of the United States. Sometimes it seems as if, everyone knows Bernie Sanders is Jewish except for Bernie Sanders.  Given the opportunity on several occasions to speak about his background, he mentions his parents who came to this country as Polish immigrants.  Only when pressed in a recent interview, and specifically asked why he makes no mention of his being Jewish did he finally say something, albeit reluctantly about his Jewish ancestry.  I doubt that he has ever made an effort to pass on to his children the sense of memory.

 

Contrast that with the man nominated by President Obama to fill the Supreme Court vacancy this week, Judge Merrick Garland. When speaking in the Rose Garden, after the president made the announcement and introduced him, he got choked up and said,

 

“As my parents taught me by both words and deeds, the life of public service is as much a gift to the person who serves as it is to those he is serving — and for me, there could be no higher public service than serving as a member of the United States Supreme Court. My family deserves much of the credit for the path that led me here. My grandparents left the pale of settlement at the border of Western Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.”

 

The guy certainly gets my vote.

 

But we still haven’t yet solved that mystery of the paradox of how and why we are supposed to both remember and then blot out the memory of what we are commanded to never forget.

 

I think the Torah tells us this so that we remember who we are, where we come from, and what it is that others did to us. This is an essential part of our identity.  But we are told to wipe out the memory of the Amalekites so it does not control and determine our view of the past.  For were that the case, it is possible that memory would paralyze and embitter us.

 

The history of our people could easily have turned us into a vengeful, vindictive and bitter people. Clearly that is not who the Jewish people are.  And maybe the key to our survival, as well as to our ability to give so much to the world is embedded in the paradoxical, contrasting message:  Remember, and at the same time wipe out the memory of those who are the antithesis of all that God wants us to be and that would cause us to desecrate the very purpose of remembering.

 

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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.