Remember the righteous by forgetting the evil

Rabbi James M. Bennett is senior rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth. He is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.

By Rabbi James M. Bennett

Sometimes, the only way to remember is to forget. True, most of us worry when we begin to forget things that we once easily remembered. We fear our own loss of cognitive function and that of our loved ones, knowing that the decline of mental acuity and, for many, the onset of memory loss and dementia represent a difficult and painful stage of life. 

But forgetting is sometimes necessary. Cognitive psychologists, in their effort to explain how and why we forget, suggest that forgetting can be good and can even help memory. Forgetting old information to make way for new and necessary information allows us to grow, change, and perhaps improve our lives and our character. 

This ageless wisdom calls to us from the depth of our tradition in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitze. The words of Moses literally overflow with powerful reminders for the Israelites about many of the civil, criminal and ethical laws necessary for the survival and flourishing of a good and just society. Moses concludes with a powerful commandment to the Jewish people to remember forever one of the most horrible acts perpetrated again us: 

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.  Therefore … you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

The Torah surprises by teaching that the way to remember the immoral and unforgiveable sins of Amelek is to blot out his name completely. Remember by forgetting. The irony and the relevance of this powerful commandment must not fall upon our deaf ears. Voices from our tradition suggest that this remembering and forgetting is one of our greatest challenges.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev taught that each of us must blot out the memory of Amalek hidden in each of our hearts. As long as any memory of Amalek remains in the world – and each of us is, in fact, a small world – the power of evil in each of us can still arise and lead us to sin. By being like Amalek, we remember Amalek. The Torah commands us to blot out Amalek – to remember by forgetting. To blot out from each of us our own “inner Amalek,” once and for all.

Each of us does harbor within our hearts at least a remnant of Amalek. Why else does systemic racism persist? Why else would we tolerate economic and social injustice? Why else would we allow those who are most vulnerable, most needy and most fragile to suffer in our presence, and why else would we turn away and pretend not to see?  

To truly remember Amalek, we must forget how to be like Amalek, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that all people, everywhere, remember to forget.  

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Forget the impulse to evil. Forget the arrogance or selfishness or greed that leads us to put our own needs so far ahead of the needs of others that we allow these and other social wrongs and injustices to persist and even thrive as we justify them as necessary, or “the way things are.” 

We live always at the crossroads of history.  The choice is always ours. We can continue to remember Amalek and allow ourselves and others to remain like him, preying on the vulnerability of others for our own benefit. 

Alternatively, as the Torah teaches, we can finally, once and for all, remember by forgetting, blotting out his name and erasing this evil from ourselves and our society, for good.