Remembering Our Memories

Some people pride themselves on being blessed with a good memory - a total recall, a photographic memory, or great recollection of details. The Torah also stresses memory and remembering. In fact, there are Six Remembrances in the Torah that Jews are meant to recite and remember daily: 

1. Our Exodus from Egypt

2. The Revelation at Sinai

3. Amalek’s Attack on Israel

4. The Golden Calf and Rebelling in the Desert

5. Miriam’s Negative Speech and Punishment and 

6. Shabbat.

The two Torah passages we read this week contain within them messages from two of these Six Remembrances. In Parshat Tetzaveh, we read of the holy garments of the High Priest, and in Parshat Zachor we remember Amalek (this is always done the week before the holiday of Purim.)

One of the unique features of the Tunic worn by the High Priest (see below) was the fastening of the shoulder piece with two Avnei Shoham - Onyx Stones. As it states in Exodus 28:9

וְלָ֣קַחְתָּ֔ אֶת־שְׁתֵּ֖י אַבְנֵי־שֹׁ֑הַם וּפִתַּחְתָּ֣ עֲלֵיהֶ֔ם שְׁמ֖וֹת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Then take two Onyx Stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel.

The commentary Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550 –1619) who served as the Rabbi of Prague explains the meaning and symbolism of the Onyx Stones bearing the engraving of the twelve tribes. 

He writes that it is an actual remembrance of the Breaking of the Heavenly Tablets by Moshe when he witnessed the Sin of the Golden Calf. There were four different pieces in the mix of that occurrence. There was Hashem (G-d), Moshe, the Two Tablets, and the Tribes of Israel. 

Rabbi Luntschitz points out skillfully that all four ingredients are featured in the memorial. The two Onyx Stones are representative of the Two Tablets. He quotes Rabbeinu Bachya who shows that the Hebrew word Shoham- שֹׁ֑הַם   when inverted spells both Hashem as well as Moshe, and imprinted on the stones was the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Therefore every time the High Priest wore the Tunic adorned with the Onyx Stones, it was a reminder of what took place by the Breaking of the Tablets – Wow!

In Parshat Ki Teytzey we read about the enemy of Amalek that “happened” upon us when we departed Egypt and attacked us when we were tired and weary. As it states in Deuteronomy 25:17-18:

זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃ אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כׇּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחֲרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים׃

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, he happened upon you and surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

It is actually a Biblical Commandment to listen to this Torah passage once a year in order to remember Amalek. Why must we remember annually what Amalek did to us?

The Sefer Hachinuch writes that we remember what Amalek did to remind us that evil and evildoers exist in the world; and that in due time G-d will expunge all evil from the earth.

Remembering the sin of the Golden Calf and the Evil Amalek are both sad and tragic times in our history. We are also obligated to remember our miraculous and joyous Exodus from Egypt, our encounter with G-d at Sinai, and the Mitzvah of Shabbat.

Our national history, similar to one’s personal history, is comprised of both positive and successful memories as well as sad and unfortunate ones. When we remember what took place we can celebrate our victories, mourn our tragedies, and learn from our mistakes. Most importantly when we remember our history, we know who we are and where we come from. Once we know that, we have a chance of knowing which direction we need to advance towards as we journey forward.

Next week, the Jewish world will celebrate Purim this coming week on Monday night March 6 through Tuesday, March 7. It is the holiday that reminds us that indeed there are Hamans out there who deny G-d and want to destroy Israel. The daily headlines we read are filled with Amalek-like behavior. At that time Esther and Mordechai led the Jews to improve their ways and in so doing they were saved from Haman and destruction, while Haman and his sons were hanged on the gallows. May we merit seeing an end to violence, anti Semitism and all hatred and instead see light, joy and truth. As we say on Purim – Bayamim Haheim Bazman Hazeh – “Just in those times, so too in our times.”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence