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Judaism: Ki Teitse: Remember, Forget, and Remember

The Torah tells us to consciously remember six events.
Published: Thursday, August 15, 2013 6:43 PM


The Torah commands us to remember six events:

-The Shabbat (Exodus 20:8);

-The Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:9-10);

-The golden calf (9:7);

-The Exodus from Egypt (16:3);

-How G-d punished Miriam for her slandering of her brother Moshe (24:9);

-Amalek’s attack against us in the desert (25:17-19).

Many siddurim (prayerbooks) include these six verses immediately after the Morning Service. Since G-d has commanded us: “Remember the Shabbat day”, “Just guard yourself…lest you forget…the day you stood before HaShem your God at Horeb”, “Remember, do not forget, that you infuriated HaShem your G-d in the desert”, and so on, it is therefore incumbent upon us to consciously recall each of these events every day, which we do by reciting the appropriate verses.

Parashat Ki Teitze contains two of these mitzvot of remembering. The first is to remember the consequences of Miriam’s evil talk against her brother Moshe: “Remember what HaShem your G-d did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:9).

The event is recorded at the end of Parashat Beha’alot’cha (Numbers 12): “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe concerning the Cushite woman whom he had married…”. (Although in English translation Miriam and Aaron seem to be equally culpable here, the Hebrew verb “va-tedabber” is feminine singular – “she spoke” – casting the prime responsibility firmly on Miriam.)

As a result Miriam was stricken with tzara’at (often mistranslated as “leprosy”), and was subsequently quarantined outside the camp for seven days. And now, almost forty years later, the Torah commands us to remember that unfortunate event.

Curiously, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Spain, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt, 1135-1204) in his listing of the mitzvot does not include this as one of the 613. However the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270), in his commentary to Deuteronomy 24:9, writes that “in my opinion this is an actual positive mitzvah, just like ‘Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it’ (Exodus 20:8), ‘Remember this day on which you left Egypt’ (ibid. 13:3), and ‘Remember what Amalek did to you’ (ibid. 25:17). Each of these is a mitzvah, so this is too just like them; and it is a warning against speaking lashon ha-ra (slander, literally evil speech)”.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, and Romania, 1809-1879) agrees with the Ramban that remembering the incident with Miriam is a positive mitzvah: “We must perforce interpret ‘Remember…’ to mean spoken remembering, otherwise these words would be superfluous. So the way to discharge the obligation to remember Shabbat and the incident of the golden calf and Miriam and Amalek is by speaking” (commentary to Parashat Bechukkotay, Paragraph 2).

The Alter Rebbe (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneuer Zalman of Ladi, 1747-1812) also includes remembering the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, Amalek’s attack, the incident with Miriam, and the golden calf, as Torah-obligated mitzvot (Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chayim 60:4).

Parashat Ki Teitze concludes with another mitzvah of remembering: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you were leaving Egypt” (Deuteronomy 25:17). Forty years earlier, scant weeks after the Exodus, even before we reached Mount Sinai and received the Torah, Amalek attacked us in the desert (Exodus 17:8-16). Now, in his final days in this world, Moshe exhorts us never to forget this first battle that we ever fought as a nation, this primeval attempt to exterminate us.

It is clear to us why the Torah commands us to remember specific events from our national history. A nation with no past, or with no memory of its past, is no nation. So the Torah commands us to remember our national past – both the bad and the good. We have countless reminders in our lives: Shabbat in memory of the Creation (Exodus 20:8-11) and in memory of our slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15), tzitzit to remind us of all the mitzvot (Numbers 15:39), Pesach to recall the Exodus, Shavuot to recall the Giving of the Torah, Sukkot to recall the wandering through the wilderness, Purim to recall Haman’s attempt to exterminate us, Chanukah to recall our War of Independence against the Hellenists, and so forth.

And then there are the fast days, days of mourning, the days when we commemorate our national disasters.

But as much as memory of past events is crucial, so too is our G-d-given ability to forget. As the Talmud says, “Three things G-d decreed must happen, and even had He not decreed them, justice would have demanded them: that a corpse decompose, that a dead person eventually be forgotten, and that crops eventually rot” (Pesachim 54b).

Indeed, the death of a loved one causes terrible pain and grief. But time eventually heals the pain somewhat and softens the grief: “The dead will never be forgotten in less than twelve months” (Berachot 58b), yet ultimately the memory of even those whom we love most dearly will subside.

Without G-d’s blessing of forgetfulness, life would be impossible. No one would be able to function if after the death of a loved one, one were to spend the rest of his life with the same intensity of grief and mourning as on the day of death.

The Grand Rebbe of Bluzhov, Rabbi Yisrael Spira (1881-1981), who went through the Holocaust, noted the apparent redundancy of the Torah’s account of Joseph and the butler: “The chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (Genesis 40:23). Is it not obvious that if the chief butler did not remember Joseph, then he forgot him? Why does the Torah use both expressions?

The Torah teaches us an important lesson, said the Rebbe of Bluzhov. There are events of such overbearing magnitude that we cannot remember them constantly, but neither are we allowed to forget them. Such an event, he said, is the Holocaust.

Significantly, then, the Torah admonishes us both to “remember what Amalek did to you” and also, “you shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:19). Any Jew who spends his entire life remembering what Amalek did to us will not be able to function normally. As King Lear said, “that way madness lies”.

This is the reason that our days of national mourning are limited: the three-week period from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, the 10th of Tevet, and a few others. Personal grief, too is limited: the seven-day period of mourning after the death of a first-degree relative, followed by less intensive mourning for thirty days, followed by a year of less intensive mourning – and then only one day a year, the Yahrzeit.

But there is an exception: if a Jew is disinterred and reburied, then all those who sat shiva rip their clothing in mourning as they did on the day of the burial and sit shiva again on the day of the disinterment and reburial (Tractate Semachot 12:3; Rambam, Laws of Mourning 12:8; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 403:1-2).

Disinterment and reburial of a loved one is so traumatic that the mourner is forced to relive the day of death. When the Israeli government exhumed dozens of Jewish graves eight years ago so that they could hand the Gaza region over to terrorists, they plunged hundreds of Jews into mourning – mourning their loved ones for a second time.

In the last few days, we have witnessed the mass release of murderers. When a murderer is brought to justice, the dead can finally rest in peace and the living can begin the process of healing. The G-d-given gift of forgetfulness can begin. But when murderers are released, the injustice shrieks out to the very heavens, the dead themselves cannot rest, and the bereaved are forced to relive their most horrendous torment.

Like disinterment and reburial, release of murderers to the joyful exultation of their sick and evil society is a time for sitting shiva over again. It is a veritable second murder, only this time committed by our own flesh and blood.

The wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon, said that “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing and they have no more reward, for their memory is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The dead are at peace, and will remain so until such time as G-d sees fit to resurrect them.

One thousand three hundred years after King Solomon, Rabbi Elazar Hakappar said: “The born will yet die, and the dead will yet be resurrected, and the living will yet be judged… And do not let your [evil] inclination inveigle you into believing that the grave will be a refuge for you…” (Pirkei Avot 4:29).

It is almost as though Rabbi Elazar Hakappar envisaged that one day the dead would be tortured by their own flesh and blood, almost as though he foresaw that even the dead would not be left to rest in peace.

It is no coincidence that those among us – those leaders of the nation – who forget our national past, are those who can cause this pain to their fellow-Jews. The Jew who does not remember what Amalek did is the Jew who is willing to forgive what Amalek did, to allow Amalek to continue to live among us, and to continue to try to exterminate us.