This is a challenging portion, in that its content is odd, especially in the midst of instruction and consideration that are Moses’ orations in the Book of Deuteronomy. It is content we might even find difficult or objectionable: descriptions of capital punishment, of taking captives and plunder in war, of stoning rebellious children, and of problematic and harmful relationships between spouses – rejection, adultery, divorce.
But it finishes with ‘Zachor et Amalek’ – we are to remember how soon after leaving Egypt, we were attacked by the Amalekites, without provocation; with ruthlessness, trickery and tyranny. While the Israelites ultimately prevailed, it was a horrible moment in history. Our portion this week reminds us: “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”
Why remember the dark side of our history? Don’t we just want to block those hurts out? Even at this time of year, the work of teshuvah, of repentance, is difficult because it forces us to confront that dark side. And yet, the pull of the dark side, as Darth Vader reminds us, can be alluring and strong.
But what is the purpose of remembering who hurt us, how we were defeated and humiliated? Are we really to wallow in our own suffering?
Both scientific studies and life experience teach that our lives become defined by where we direct our attention, for actions ultimately follow intention. Our memories, our emotions and our personal narratives become woven to create the tapestry of our lives. We are what we remember.
Torah here merely teaches us to remember.
The key is that we can choose how we remember:
Do we hold onto grief, or can we transform it into empathy for others? Do we remain fearful, or use that experience to build courage? Can we turn our mourning into dancing, as the psalmist calls us to do?
Torah here teaches to remember what we were, even the icky and objectionable stuff – so that we can transform our narrative to become bearers of wholeness and blessing.
[Ki Teitzei 2014]