Zachor – Contrasts and Boundaries
The Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi (no relation) cites a passage from the Sefat Emet, a 19th century publication authored by the Hassidic Rebbe of Ger, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter. The Midrash notes that in two places the Torah commands us to “remember.” (There are more, but the Midrash singles out two, which are included in the list of positive commandments.) We read a few weeks ago in the context of the 10 Commandments: “Remember the day of the Sabbath to sanctify it.” (Ex 20:7) On Shabbat Zachor we read from a second scroll the verses calling for the destruction of Amalek: “Remember that which Amalek did to you…” (Deut 25:17)
The Sefat Emet, in his commentary on Deuteronomy, offers the following explanation to help us understand the Torah’s parallel use of the word “remember.” If we don’t draw a contrast between the goodness of the Sabbath and the evil of Amalek we will never be able to appreciate either. There are two major themes in life that we must acknowledge and constantly be aware of. There is good and there is evil, holy and mundane. Just as we begin the observance of the Sabbath with the recitation of Kiddush, declaring the sanctity of the day, so we depart from the Sabbath with the recitation of Havdallah, marking a separation between the sanctity of the Sabbath and the ordinary days of the week. Kiddush and Havdallah define the borders of the Sabbath, setting it apart from the rest of the week. Without this distinction the lines would become blurred, eventually disappearing. If we limit our Sabbath experience to a Friday evening Kiddush and dinner, without bothering with a formal exit at the other end we are missing a key aspect of “remembering” the Shabbat. Saturday afternoon could just as well be Sunday afternoon. The process of Havdallah, the building of boundaries between units of time, enables us to appreciate the unique place of Shabbat in the context of the week.
We mentioned previously a Midrash on Psalms, stating that “Had I not been sitting in darkness I would not notice the light.” If we are to recognize the illumination of light we must have a glimpse of darkness against which to contrast the light. The reverse is true as well. The Torah commands us here to remember Amalek’s assault against the nation of Israel as they journeyed forth from Egypt. The attack was not instigated, nor was there any gain to be achieved by Amalek. This was, as Rabbi Sacks would put it, altruistic evil, an evil for its own sake without any benefit to the attackers. By directing us to remember this evil embodied by Amalek the Torah is highlighting the contrast between evil and good, enabling us to appreciate the good that much more.
There is one important difference, however, between the “remembrance” of Shabbat and the “remembrance” of Amalek. We have a weekly Mitzvah to remember Shabbat. Fifty two times a year we recite the Friday night Kiddush, welcoming the sanctity of the Sabbath and moving away from the ordinary week. Only once a year, however, do we recall the remembrance of Amalek. It is one of the Mitzvot the Torah has graced us with, but this Mitzvah is of a very limited application. The discrepancy suggests that we must not become fixated on evil. We must be aware of it, acknowledge its presence and fight it wherever it crops us, but our focus on good ought to be fifty times greater than that of evil. This is reflected also in Psalms (34:15) where the verse states: “Turn away from evil and do good, seek and pursue peace.” A common interpretation of this verse notes that by doing good, by seeking out peace and pursuing it, we are able to counteract evil.