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Active Memory

By: Dr. Judith Fogel

This week, the Shabbat before Purim, we read Parshat Zachor as the maftir in the Beit Knesset.  It is one of the four special maftirs that we add throughout the year: Shekalim, Zachor, Hodesh and Parah. 

The reading of Zachor is taken from Devarim 25; 17-19. 

“Remember [Zakhor] what Amalek did to you along the way as you left Egypt; how he confronted you along the way and smote the hindmost among you, all that were enfeebled, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore, it shall be that when the Lord your God gives you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; you shall not forget.” (Deut. 25:17–19)

The Gemara in Megilah 18a describes two aspects to the mitzvah of Amalek. 

The first is remembering in our thoughts and our hearts.  We need to constantly remember that when we came out of Egypt and the hand of G-d was known to all the nations—while everyone feared the Jews, Amelek did not.  They were brazen and attacked us, which in essence robbed G-d of a piece of His glory.  The second aspect of the commandment is active and we have to express this remembrance verbally.  Just like the “Zachor” of Shabbat is done by reciting kiddush, so too, we remember Amelek (Zachor) by reciting the pesukim from Devarim.  By putting our thoughts and feelings into words we take our beliefs one step further. 

Based on the psukim quoted above, the Rambam lists three separate Mitzvot relating to the nation of Amalek.  We are required to remember what Amalek did to Bnei Yisrael, eradicate the memory of Amalek, and not to forget what Amalek did. 

The Rambam does not mention a specific time to fulfill these Mitzvot.  Rather, they are general mitzvot which seems to apply all the time.  In fact, there is no mention in the Gemara of any yearly public readings of Zachor.  Moreover, the Minchat Chinuch states that one can fulfill the biblical obligation of remembering Amelek by doing so once in a lifetime.  Thus, it would seem, the requirement to read the Parsha of Zachor in public before Purim is a Rabbinic requirement. 

For inspiration for such a decree, the Rabbis would need not look farther than the next holiday in line – Pesach.  Indeed, there is a strong parallel between the two mitzvoth of these two holidays. 

With the exodus of Egypt, there is also a mitzvah of remembering (Zechirah).  This is accomplished through the recitation of Shema twice a day, morning and night.  Yet, we also have the additional mitzvah to remember the Exodus (Sipur) and commemorate it once a year.  Rav Soloveitchik differentiates between these two mitzvoth, Zechirah and Sippur, describing the former as the requirement to remember the exodus each day and the latter as the mitzvah to retell, learn, and even act out the Exodus from Egypt once a year at the Pesach seder.  There, not only are we more active than in the daily mitzvah, but we do so together as a group, essentially, taking the mitzvah to the next level on two fronts. 

So too, while many opinions believe that the mitzvah of remembering Amalek is observed every day, the Rabbis decided that once a year we need to get together as a community to read the Pesukim of Parshat Zachor out loud.

Interestingly enough, coming together as a community doesn’t necessarily include women.  But not for the reasons you might think.  The Sefer Hachinuch says that this mitzvah is specific to men because only men have the obligation to fight Amalek and therefore the mitzvah is incumbent only on them. 

The Minchat Chinuch, however, disagrees and says that women are obligated.  Because the mitzvah to wipe out Amalek is everlasting and relevant every second of every day, it does not qualify as a time-bound mitzvah (mitzvah she’aseh zman gerama), from which women many time are exempt.  Additionally, like Shabbat, any instance where women are required to follow the negative aspects of the holiday (Shamor et HaShabbat), we are also required to follow the positive mitzvoth (Zachor et HaShabbat). 

The Minchat Chinuch goes further, saying that even if the mitzvah of remembering Amalek is connected to actually fighting, women are also supposed to join a milchemet mitzvah – which the mitzvah of erasing Amalek certainly is. 

In fact the Mishnah in Sotah 8:7 states:  “In a war of self-defense [literally, an obligatory war] all go out to do battle, even a groom from his room, and the bride from under the wedding canopy.”  A commandment reiterated by the Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 7:4.

What is clear from even a cursory analysis of the mitzvoth surrounding some of our most important Chagim, Purim included, is that passively “not” doing something is never enough.  Rather, we need to actively do something to make it really count.  Moreover, these actions have even more meaning when done so in a public forum. 

A message as relevant then as it is now.

Shabbat Shalom.


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