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.

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Shabbat Tetzaveh: It’ll Cost You

Our parashat hashavua (the parashah, “reading” or “portion” for this shavua, “week”; notice that the h changes to a t when parashah is modified by the specific week’s readingis Tetzaveh, “[you shall] command”.

The parashah begins with a grammatical anomaly noted by the famous Torah teacher Nehama Lebowitz. Usually a parashah begins with the familiar phrase Speak unto the people of Israel, and say to them….. This phrase precedes the specific command. In this case, we have instead G-d’s word coming to Moshe as

You yourself command the people of Israel (Exodus 27.20)

Then, unlike all the other places in Torah that we could mention which go on to specify a command such as bring Me – sacrifices, gifts of the heart for the building of the Mishkan, and more – the verse continues

to bring you 

The subject of the verse is pure beaten olive oil for lighting, for a lamp to burn continually. (still Exodus 27.20)

This is the lamp indicated: the seven-branched menorah. This most ancient of Jewish symbols is attested throughout Israeli archeological sites. This powerful symbol of light kept perpetually kindled was a beacon, more than simply visually, for our people through the course of much darkness.

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What is the way in which we are commanded to keep this lamp alight? Our teacher Nehama offers the commentary of prior Rabbis and Sages, focusing upon one verse, the first verse of the parashah.

Why does G-d say you yourself and to bring you in this parashah of all parashiot? There are at least two possible answers:

1. Moshe’s name does not appear in this parashah, alone of all the parashiot of the Torah which include him (that would be 4 out of the 5 books). Perhaps this signals his feeling diminished, because he knows now that he will not be the High Priest – that job goes to his brother. Here, G-d reassures Moshe that his is really the superior position, since he relays the commands that Aaron must follow. In this particular case, that point is underscored by having Moshe stand in, as it were, for G-d.

2. This is not about Moshe at all. The words you yourself are without a pronoun because the command is for you yourself, and I myself, and all Jews. Our obligation is to bring ourselves. Where? Toward G-d, via the light that we are commanded here to kindle, in company with all those who travel our spiritual path. Bring yourself, and help to bring others, for although there is an important individual link we each seek to experience to life, there is for Jews also and always the mystery of how we experience G-d’s presence only in community.

Now, about the command itself: from Sifre Naso, a collection of ancient interpretation, we find several levels of human context. First, the idea of eternal loyalty to the Word of G-d, implied in the regular lighting of a symbolic lamp, which must be tended twice a day at the very least.

“A command [the word tzivui, from the parashah’s name Tetzaveh) implies now and for all time.”

And then more, shall we say, down to earth comments about the implications of the word “command”:

“Rabbi Judah ben Batira stated: ‘command’ implies extra enthusiasm…..Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai stated: ‘command’ invariably occurs in the context of monetary loss.”

Between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Shimon there is an entire world of human religious behavior. Enthusiasm and monetary loss; are they poles or does one imply the other? At the very least, enough enthusiasm for anything is going to cost you: just look at the price of a child’s sports or arts enthusiasm (uniform, instruments, lessons, shows or games….) and this is not less true for adults. Anything worth being enthusiastic over will demand a price from us.

This is the Jewish path: it demands b’khol levavkha, b’khol naf’shekha, uv’khol m’odekha, “all your mind, all your emotions, all your resources”. (Deuteronomy 6.5, and also found as part of the Shema in the siddur). There are days when we fulfill mitzvot as if they were delightful good deeds, with enthusiasm, feeling good about ourselves and our Jewish ethics. And there are days when we must be reminded that we are obligated beyond our comfort level.

Certainly, our enthusiasm for our Jewish community demands time, talent and money from us. There are days when we don’t count the cost because of our delight; other days we may need to be reminded that we are obligated to nurture and strengthen it. If Jewish community is to exist, we all have to bring our enthusiasm and our monetary contributions.

In sociological studies of Jewish baby boomers it has been noted that the only religious paths which are strong in our post-modern Western society are those which expect excellence and commitment. We expect the best of our schools, our leaders, and our society – why would we settle for less in our religious community? For a generation, Jewish leadership tried to make it as easy as possible to keep Jews attached to religious communities – changing holiday observance to the nearest convenient Shabbat, for example, or refusing to make strong statements about ethics in society that might alienate some. And what we have found is that the half-serious practice of Judaism produces half-serious Jews who cannot stand strong when the winds of uncertainty and stress challenge them. Obligation to excellence apparently nurtures stronger and more meaningful lives.

It’s still okay to moan about it, of course….on our way to showing up and being counted. Each one of us – you yourself – must see ourselves as obligated, whether enthusiastically on any given day or not. Each one of us is necessary if we are to keep that lamp alight.

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