Don’t Forget to Remember: Beshallach 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: How have your memories of your life’s biggest milestones evolved over the years? What did you remember most about, let’s say, your Bar/Bat Mitzvah five years after it happened? What did you remember most about it 10 years later? 25 years later?

Our Torah portion this Shabbat concludes with the exhortation to remember Amalek’s nefarious attack on the Israelites, a memory that must stay with the Israelites from generation to generation – even though God wishes to “blot out” the memory of this nation. Perhaps it is not surprising that what commentators remember about Amalek varies greatly.

Text: “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. … Then Adonai said to Moses, ‘Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!’ And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi. He said, ‘It means, “Hand upon the throne of Adonai!” Adonai will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.’” (Exodus 17:11, 14-16)

Commentary #1: “The unusual wording of Exodus 17:16 … If kes means “throne,” then it lacks the final letter of the ordinary word for ‘throne’ (kisse). Similarly, the name of YHWH here lacks the last two consonants that it usually (but not always) shows. Rabbi Aha [bar Hanina] interprets these apocopated terms as an indication of the unfinished quality of God’s nature and his mastery over the world. So long as Israel’s ancient and by now archetypical enemy endures, YHWH is not altogether YHWH, and his regal power is not yet fully actualized. Rather, he is the omnipotent cosmocrator only in potentia. His power and majesty, not yet fully manifest, will become so when, acting in accordance with Psalm 9, he blasts his enemy from the world.” – Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence

Commentary #2: “After the battle, Moses made everyone – who were, as you can imagine, tired from all the killing and maiming – make this ridiculous trophy called the Adonai-Nissi Altar, which he inscribed with – get this: ‘Hand upon the throne of the Lord.’ Seriously. Like he did all the killing and maiming with the hands that he didn’t even raise himself. He also wrote on it, ‘The Lord will be at war with the Amalek throughout the ages.’ I’m sure He will, sweetheart. People will be wanting to see Amalek rematches every year. More likely, you’ll be talking about it with your battle-watching altacockers late into the night until I get so bored, I have to excuse myself to go to timbrel practice. Here’s a secret: I don’t even like the timbrel. Think about that while you enjoy your battle.” – Joel Stein, from Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, editor

Commentary #3: “The remembrance of Amalek is also meant to remind Israel of their own moral breach at Rephidim shortly after their departure from Egypt, a breach which served to bring on the hound – Amalek, who thereupon resorted to all kinds of evil tricks. Having managed to get hold of Israel’s genealogical records stored in Egyptian archives, he was able by use of the precise information in the records to lure Israelites from the safety of their camp, and then either slew them or polluted them by pederasty. Subsequently, encouraged by Amalek’s successful example, other nations dared attack Israel.” – Pesikta D’Rav Kahanna

Late-Inning Questions: To Levenson, the Amalekite attack is especially noteworthy because of God’s emerging yet incomplete sovereignty over the universe. Stein seems to find Moses’ role in the victory over Amalek most striking. Pesikta D’Rav Kahanna sees the Israelites’ grumblings during their first days of their wanderings as a catalyst to attacks by Amalek and others as well.

What do you think is most memorable about the Amalekite attack? Is it paradoxical to both remember Amalek and to also aim to blot out the memory of that nation? What exactly does God hope for us to remember about this incident? And to what extent do our memories change over time, just as we change over time? What can we do to ensure that we remember the most important lessons of our lives?

On Deck at Emanu-El: The Gun Sense SC Friday night service at KKBE is only one week away – Friday, January 29th, at 8:00PM at the Temple. Please join us to stand up for reasonable and logical gun-safety measures. For more information about Gun Sense SC, click here.

The Big Inning at the End: Over the years, I acquired more than 10,000 baseball cards, in addition to numerous football, basketball, and hockey cards. In less than 10 days, I’m giving almost all of them away. I’ve donated or committed to donating numerous cards to kids who have requested them over Facebook; the remaining cards (still several thousand, at least) will be auctioned off at Emanu-El’s Religious School Bingo event on Sunday, January 31st. Come and buy a ticket, then stay and play. You just might wind up with a nice collection of sports memorabilia.

Shabbat Shalom!