Remembrance: Symbolism and laws of Parshat Zachor

Recognition, respect and repentance.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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For the laws of Parshat Zachor, click here

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

It is well known that the Maftir, the special final portion of Torah reading, for the Shabbat before Purim recounts the perfidy of Amalek’s attacking Bnei Yisroel as Bnei Yisroel left Egypt in a weakened state. Because this selection begins with the word zachor – remember-, the Shabbat itself is called Shabbat Zachor, We are exhorted to remember what Amalek did to us specifically at this time because Haman, the villain of the Purim narrative, is a descendant of Amalek.

The Tosher Rebbe raises an interesting question in Avodat Avodah. Given this reasoning, would it not be more appropriate to read this selection on Purim itself rather than on the Shabbat preceding Purim? Further, why read this selection that recounts the attack at the end of the forty years in the desert and our obligation to remember it and annihilate Amalek rather than the original narrative at the time it happened?

Rav Reiss quoting Chazal offers one response for the timing of this reading. Since the Megillah itself tells us that the Purim events are to be remembered and observed, and remembrance precedes observation of the holiday, he reasons that we must remember the events on the Shabbat preceding Purim through reading the story of Amalek, the nation of Haman. Rav Reiss then continues to explain why the remembrance should be specifically on Shabbat. Notice the similarity in language, he writes: Compare, “Remember that which Amalek did to you….that he happened upon you on the way,” with, “Remember   the Sabbath Day and make it holy.” Since Shabbat is a day dedicated to remembrance, there must be some significance in juxtaposing these two commands, and there must be something special about Shabbat that counters Amalek.

This question can be examined through the three aspects the Maharal identifies as the three dimensions of all existence: Relationship to God, relationship to others, and relationship to self.

The Shem MiShmuel discusses the idea presented by Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, that Amalek is the opposite of Shabbos. How? Let us begin by understanding the two aspects that Shabbat represents, as recited in the Kiddush. After creation, it was Shabbat that first imbued the physical world with sanctity. Then the exodus revealed Hashem’s presence in this world and His ability to harness all the physical world to do His bidding. All the nations of the world trembled and acknowledged Hashem, save for Amalek. Amalek’s philosophy consisted of denying God by creating doubt about His existence, by asserting that everything was happenstance and coincidence, asher korcha baderech- who “happened” upon you on the way, rather than that the exodus and all its associated miracles were coordinated by God. Their related mission was to defile Bnei Yisroel so they would no longer be sanctified. Every week as we observe Shabbat, we counter the influence of Amalek and its philosophy. Therefore, it is appropriate that we read about Amalek on the Shabbat before Purim.

But, as Rabbi Reiss notes, Hashem finely coordinated even the timing of Amalek’s attack. Bnei Yisroel, after Moshe got water from the rock, had verbalized, “Is Hashem actually within us or not?” This doubt came right after Hashem provided the manna for Bnei Yisroel including instructions not to go out to collect the manna on Shabbat. Nevertheless, some of Bnei Yisroel challenged Hashem and went out to collect the manna on Shabbat morning, but there was none, again proving that Hashem was in control. Immediately, Amalek, whose very name equals doubt in Hebrew numerology, came as if to prove that Hashem was there and heard their lapse in faith. (Amalek=240=safek.) The timing of Amalek’s attack proves not only that Hashem exists, but also that He controls the world at every moment.

Shabbat provides the seal to that truth. When I refrain from working on Shabbat, I am testifying that Hashem provides all my needs, as He did during the forty years in the desert. Our three Shabbat meals bear further witness to this belief, writes Mesilot Beohr Hachasidut, of the Belzer dynasty. There is a custom to lift up one’s hands after washing for bread, as if being ready to receive the manna directly from heaven. By affirming my faith through Shabbat observance, writes the Slonimer Rebbe in Netivot Shalom, I am countering the doubt that Amalek tried to instill in Bnei Yisroel. When we tap into Shabbat fully, we access the two pillars of all 613 commandments, emunah andkedushah, faith and sanctity, and we break the shell of Amalek. As Rabbi Boruch Leff notes, we are commanded to erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. But on Shabbat we are lifted above the heavens where Amalek does not exist. Further, we no longer know who Amalek is, but if we strive to eliminate negativity and doubt from our lives, as we should do on Shabbat, we are shutting out the evil forces that Amalek represents.

We read Parshat Zachor twice during the year, once as part of the regular Torah reading thirty days before Yom Kippur and again on this special Shabbat, thirty days before Pesach, notes the Gerrer Rebbe. Reading About Amalek on these two Shabbatot helps arouse us to focus on eradicating the evil of Amalek as we enter these holy seasons. The mitzvah of Purim needs the added kedushah that Shabbat brings. This Shabbat is one of the holiest of the year, as it brings together both mitzvoth of Shabbat, zachor – remember and shamor – observe.

A further aspect of Purim is the command to give gifts to the poor. Our Rabbis extrapolate from this that on this day we should give to anyone who stretches out his hand to ask for a donation. We are not to question or ask for proof of his worthiness. Similarly, on Purim, we too can ask Hashem for anything, especially spiritual requests for ourselves and our children, and Hashem will respond favorably. But, writes the Netivot Shalom, we need to be able to stretch out our hand and ask for that help. On this Shabbat, Hashem is stretching out His hand (so to speak), urging us to stretch out ours and ask for His help in difficult situations. While Purim awakens us from below, Shabbat awakens us with the desire to elevate ourselves from below. In this respect, Shabbat Zachor is even greater than Purim as we begin the process of countering the effects of Amalek. This Shabbat acts as a catalyst for the fulfillment of Purim. In fact, the final redemption will come only through the power of truth when all lies, represented by Amalek, are eradicated, writes the Tosher Rebbe.

Rabbi Zev Leff continues with an assessment of the world today. We live in a world of falsehood. When people lie, nature itself seems to follow suit. Clouds form, but no rain comes. We wear clothes made of synthetic materials and eat food produced from synthetic ingredients, like fruit juice with no fruit. We’ve even learned to create lying pictures with Photo shop. We have to focus on always being truthful and instilling in our children the value of truth. That is how we counter the falsity of Amalek. After all, writes the Tosher Rebbe, Amalek inherited and learned how to lie from his grandfather Esau, who know how to “hunt with his mouth”, whereas Yaakov was innocent and flawless, and studied constantly.

There is a difference between sheker, falsity through lies, and shav, falsity through meaninglessness. The one who uses lies to manipulate people still recognizes that what he’s doing and saying is wrong. But the one who falsifies using shav has lost the distinction between right and wrong, between truth and untruth, and will justify everything he says. [In a public high school class discussion, one of my students justified a drug dealer’s profits because “he faces so many risks.”c.k.s.] In other words, he has become indifferent and cold, kar, to honesty and truth. He no longer looks even at himself honestly.

What brings a person to this condition? The Tosher Rebbe continues. It is nothing more than haughtiness and arrogance. It is the feeling that I am always right, and nothing else matters but what I think or I want. When I can consider my fallibility and the possibility that I am wrong, I can examine other people’s ideas honestly and admit if I am wrong. I can view what others have without feelings of jealousy and entitlement, for I can acknowledge that their needs differ from mine, and I have all my needs. Our challenge, highlighted on Purim, is to be able to give to others with joy, as signified by the special Purim mitzvoth of mishloach manot and gifts to the poor.

But one can be “charitable” toward others in ways that will keep us humble. Shabbat Zachor especially is all about connection, to respect and value yourself as well as others, to see something special in every human being, and to find something we can learn from the other person’s character, demeanor, or actions.

Ultimately, our connection to others leads to a closer connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu Who has sanctified us through the Shabbos. This connection and complete reliance on Him brings us to complete joy. Therefore, those who observe Shabbat fully experience complete joy in Hashem’s sovereignty, a joy that is renewed each Shabbos as we find ourselves fulfilled. As such, Shabbat is a special gift from Hashem Who supplied the manna in the desert to each according to his need. In the desert, each could sit in his tent on Shabbat, and he would have all he needed, for Hashem had supplied it all daily and doubly before Shabbat. No one went out to compare what he had to what others had. Each was content in his own tent realizing that Hashem had provided him with all his needs.

The Tosher Rebbe finds a method of reconnecting to Hashem in the listing of Mordechai’s genealogy.  He is the son of Yair (brings light), the son of Shimi (Who hears), the son of Kish (to batter open, knock down). Mordechai enlightened the eyes of Bnei Yisroel through prayer, then Hashem heard them, and then Bnei Yisroel stormed the heavenly gates of mercy. This was in fact the order of Mordechai and Esther’s interaction with Bnei Yisroel. First Mordechai had to awaken Bnei Yisroel from their complacency, from their enjoyment of Ahashuerosh’s party. When they realized how badly they had sinned, Hashem would begin listening to them and they could storm the gates of mercy to reverse a decree that had already been written in cement. This is in fact what we must do to vanquish the Amalek within ourselves. We must recognize the negativity and sins within ourselves so that Hashem will listen to us as we entreat Him to open the gates of mercy. We must take the first step, and become vessels where the light of holiness can enter.

Shabbos is the beginning of this process. If we look closely, we will note that the letters of Shabbat are the root teshuvah, return, return to your Source, to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, writes Rabbi Boruch Leff, for Shabbat is the starting point for all that is called holy.

Along these line, the Belzer Rebbe notes that the Shabbat before Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva, or we are admonished to return to Hashem before that awesome day. Similarly, the Shabbat before Purim should also signify a return and repentance, a time for introspection so that I make my Shabbat as spiritual and holy as I can, and remove all vestiges of Amalek from my life. After all, the Gemarra says that Yom Hakipurim is actually a day (yom) like (k) Purim.

Shabbat Zachor is a day when we recognize Hashem’s sovereignty, which leads us to respect ourselves and others, and brings us to repentance. May Hashem again extricate us from the falsehood of Amalek that surrounds us so that all the world will again recognize His sovereignty.