Shabbat Zakhor: Remember? then Do Something

This Shabbat, on which we read the first words of the book VaYikra, called Leviticus, is also called Zakhor, “remember”. 

For Jews, to remember is to do. This assumption – that the mental act prompts a physical one – is encoded in the ancient Hebrew: 

וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה.

It came to pass in the course of this long time that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel were groaning under their bondage, and they cried out, and their cry came up unto G-d.

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב.

G-d heard their cries, and G-d remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Exodus 2.23-24)

Jewish tradition teaches that we are to regard stories which depict G-d in human terms for their role model value. G-d clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe those in need; G-d buried Moshe, so we see to it that people are properly buried; G-d provides food for all through the processes of nature, so we make sure that the natural abundance of our world reaches all who are hungry.

So too here: G-d remembers that human beings are suffering, and moves to alleviate it, and the wheel of history turns. And as a result of this ancient linguistic idiom, Judaism develops an ethic: to remember, to take note, is to act. A good person can never note a problem and simply turn away, assuming that someone else will respond.

And so it is that we do what we can to move that wheel when it is our turn, even if only by a few inches. We are not called upon to fix the problem we face, necessarily, but we are expected to do our part, as the rabbinic saying goes:

 לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל  It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 2.19)

So we do what we can, knowing that the only unacceptable response is the refusal to engage, and do what we can.

The Jewish ethic of remembering and doing offers us a curious question: What does it mean to say that G-d remembers? is it possible to say that G-d forgets? and for those of us who don’t think of G-d as a being who either remembers or forgets, but as a non-anthropomorphic reality or presence, what do either of those words mean?

Yizkor, “may G-d remember”, is the first word of the ritual we observe four times a year in memory of our loved ones who have died. If G-d is just a king on a throne, so to speak, then maybe that sort of divinity needs reminding. But consider it differently: perhaps we are expressing a desire for the memory of a loved one to continue to be remembered, in a way that causes an act, a change, in the world as it is, even though they are no longer with us. Perhaps what we are really saying is “may the world remember – and be affected by that memory”.

That is what brings us to the desire to see a photograph, or hear a voice recording, and know that it is extant in the world because it keeps a loved one more fully in that world. More profoundly appropriate, that is why in Jewish tradition one gives tzedakah as a memorial. Not because of the name alone, but because through the tzedakah that name is not only remembered, but good is enacted as well. And that is the moment in which we truly are sharing in a remembrance that is of G-d.

Every time you move that wheel just a bit, in memory of someone you loved, you bring that loved one into the Memory of the World.

This Shabbat is one of the special Shabbatot that reminds us of the approach of Pesakh – a time for Yizkor and a time for tzedakah. May you find a meaningful way to remember and to do, in honor of a memory you cherish.

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Shabbat Zakhor: What Commands You to Remember?

This Shabbat is not only named Tetzaveh, “you shall command” for the Torah reading assigned to it, but also Zakhor, for the imperative “remember!” which denotes the special Torah reading added to the regular weekly parashah. This is the second of four special Shabbatot that mark the days we count down (or, more appropriately, up) to Pesakh, the “Festival of Matzot”.

The meaning of the counting is mindfulness, in its own way a form of remembering: as we near one of the most significant moments in the Jewish calendar, special Haftarah readings emphasize certain themes which help us notice, and be aware of the time passing.

The meaning of counting “up” (instead of down, the usual idiom) refers to the Jewish teaching that we always add to holiness, and never take away. That’s why we light one candle on the first night of Hanukkah and add a light each night (it is at least just as logical to start with eight and take one away each night, since we are remembering a certain amount of dedicated oil, which was reduced each day). Upward and onward, so to speak.

The four special Shabbatot (they are compared to the Seder’s Four Cups of Wine) can be seen as invitations upward, one Shabbat at a time. The first is Shabbat Shekalim, on which we take note of our financial condition as we near the Jewish calendar’s New Year (Pesakh takes place during the month of Nisan, which is the first month of the Jewish calendar); we make adjustments, and get ready to pay taxes and give tzedakah as we are expected to do. The third, Shabbat Parah, describes the conditions for spiritual readiness (“ritual purity”) required to prepare oneself for the Seder. The fourth, Shabbat haHodesh, “the Month”, proclaims the beginning of Nisan: it’s time to prepare your Seder.

Then there is this Shabbat, the second one of the series, called Shabbat Zakhor. It calls upon us to “remember!” The question is, remember what? And how is memory a move upward, toward a more complete spiritual readiness, and openness?

Memory, it turns out, has always been a primary requirement for spiritual readiness among our people. Our ancestors, we are told, traveled up to Jerusalem to celebrate this Festival in the ancient past. When they reached the top of this physical and spiritual aliyah (going up) they were promised that they would all be able to actually see the Face of G-d, as long as they brought their zakhur with them – their memory.

What does it mean to see the Face of G-d via memory? To consider this question we have to be willing to put down a lot of assumptions, for example: 

1. that G-d is a sort of manipulative Wizard of Oz

2. that G-d has a face the way a human being does

3. that our ancestors were qualitatively less intelligent than we are in matters spiritual

If you are able to reject these Jewishly unfounded imaginings, then consider: the Hebrew word that most directly refers to G-d is nothing less than the letters that indicate the Hebrew verb “to be” in all its tenses; past, present, future – and imperative. Was, Is, Will Be, Be! The Jewish G-d is best (though badly) evoked through the ideas of endless time (Eternity) and endless space (Everywhere). And we share in all of it. The only issue is whether we remember that. Abraham Joshua Heschel once defined the human being as “a messenger who forgot the message”.

Remember where you come from. Let that memory carry you back, before your own individual being in time and space. And in your mind’s reaching, you will begin to be able to envision a hint of that endless eternity of which you are a small, momentary utterance, part of all being and its warp and woof, utterly necessary and completely at home. 

Remember, and let that remembering move you upward, and onward, toward the you that you are yet meant to be, step by step, Shabbat by Shabbat.