Since the current Jewish year contains thirteen months, and this March coincides with Adar Sheini, the second month of Adar, as March begins we look forward to Purim on the 14th Adar II. The Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor because we read an additional portion from the Torah, which opens with these words (Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 25:17-25): ‘Zachor – Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you were going out from Egypt / how he met you along the way, and attacked the stragglers at the rear, when you are faint and weary, and he did not fear God. (see B’shallach – Exodus 17:8-16).
What is the connection with Purim? In the Book of Esther, the wicked Haman is presented as a descendant of Amalek, and thereafter the worse persecutors of the Jewish people, in every generation, have been identified as ‘Amalek’ – including, Hitler.
We have taken the injunction to ‘remember Amalek’ seriously. But we have done more than this. The focus on ‘remembering Amalek’ has also shaped our memory altogether. Born in Posnan, Prussia (now Poland), Heinrich Graetz (31st October 1817 – 7th September 1891), one of the first historians to write a comprehensive history of the Jewish people from a Jewish perspective* described Jewish history as a ‘vale of tears’. For the most part our remembering has focused on our experience of churban – ‘destruction’. Of course, Graetz wasn’t wrong – but there has been much more to Jewish history than persecution and genocide. Just think about our memory of memories: the Exodus from Egypt. Again and again, the Torah exhorts us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt – but the point of remembering this defining episode is that we were liberated. And so, not just Pesach, each Shabbat is zeicher itzi’at mitzrayim – ‘a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt’ (birkat ha-yom, ‘the blessing for the day’, recited as part of kiddush on Erev Shabbat)
Of course, the Exodus only happened once: one moment of liberation a long journey through the ‘vale of tears’? If we look back on our history, it is clear that despite oppression and slaughter, we have flourished, again and again, making a stunning contribution to the world in almost every field of endeavour. So, in addition to ‘remembering’ every ‘Amalek’, we should also remember, with pride, all our achievements – not least, the modern State of Israel, and the revival of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and throughout the world after the Sho’ah.
*History of the Jews from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. The English edition was published in London in 1891-92 in 5 volumes.