Thursday, February 25, 2010

Making Memory

This week we mark Shabbat Zachor. Beyond the sequential Torah portion we read weekly, we read from a second scroll of the mitzvah to eradicate, not only the people but even the zaicher, memory, of Amalek from the earth.

Truth be told, there is no greater human tragedy than to be erased from memory. When we speak of the ultimate villains of history. like Hitler, we mention their name and then immediately add yemach shmo, may his name be forever blotted out.Italic
Surprisingly the Torah tell us that if someone dies without children they run the risk of having their name blotted out. It is for that reason the Torah requires the mitzvah of Yibum, the levirate marriage. The brother of the deceased is to marry his childless widow so a child will be born " shem acheve hamet, vlo yemacha shemo byisrael" " the name of his deceased brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel".

We might wonder about the connection between the man or woman who dies childless and the nefarious villains of history. About both it seems the term yemacha shmo, blotted name, is used. Yet the person who dies without having had children may well be a great tzaddik, someone who has done great good and for many. How is it that we refer to their circumstances as alike. Can it be possible that the good person who dies childless really incurred the horrific curse of yemach shmo that we reserve for the worst perpetrators of evil?

Unconditionally the answer is "No!". One who dies without leaving children indeed sadly has his/her name blotted out. To mitigate the tragedy the Torah gave us the mitzvah of Yibum.
However it is not the same at all as the curse we hurl on history's villains. Of them we dont just say "yemach shmo". What we say is "yemach shmo v'zechro". For those who create great evil we do more than talk about the blotting out of a name. Like for the Amalekites, we call for the blotting out of their names and memory. Good people may not be able to continue to keep their name alive in this world without having had children, but they can do much to preserve their zecher, memory.

Worse than being remembered for bad, is not being remembered at all. Think about it. How many a notorious criminal was pleased to know that they would never be forgotten. It did not matter to them that their acts would leave them on the bad guys list. It was only important that they left a mark and would be remembered. They were not satisfied doing the little evil, that might go unnoticed or have a limited lifespan of memory. They wanted to do the big evil, one that would go down in history.

When Hashem calls for Amalek, the nation who personified evil, to receive the ultimate penalty for there unpardonable sin, He calls for their memory to be blotted out. We are to remove any indication that Amalek ever existed. In the end of days, when this mitzvah is fulfilled as it supposed to be, Amalek will, as it were, disappear, in name, in deed,and in memory. It will be as if they never were.

I will share with you something deeply personal. Some 2 1/2 years ago my wife passed away of metastatic cancer. She was only 54. She left an only child, a 13 year old daughter. Before she died she confided to me something. She told me she was entirely accepting of her untimely death, that she in fact had bargained for it. You see, Pamela was a cancer survivor and for many many years. Ten years earlier a spot had shown up on her lung, a recurrence of the cancer that had been in remission for many years and of the same cancer that eventually took her life.
At that time she pleaded with G-d not to take her. She said to G-d "Please don't take me now. My daughter is so young. Please just give me ten years. Just enough time so Bess will remember me. That's all I ask." Pamela then told me, the ten years just concluded. Her prayers were answered.
It was time to accept.

Sometimes when I tell that story people assume that Pamela would have wanted the ten years so she could help her daughter grow. I can see on their face that they are a bit surprised she bargained for the time for what might be seen as selfish motives. She wanted her only child to remember her.

What the puzzled person does not understand is how basic the desire is within each of us to leave a zecher, a remembrance. The greatest curse is to die as if you never lived. The victory over Amalek will never be complete until there is no memory of them left in the world. For the dying their is no comfort like in knowing they will be remembered.

In marking Shabbat Zachor perhaps it would be useful to not only focus on the evil we need to remember to eradicate from memory. We would do well to remember as well the zecher that will be our nechama someday when life is ebbing away. Leaving a meaningful zecher is not about one great gift or heroic act. Leaving a zecher is the work of a lifetime and as much evidenced in the little acts of kindness and often to those closest to us.

After a hundred and twenty years, when our time comes, may it be said of us "zichrono levracha", that indeed our memory is a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom

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