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Remembering the Future: Memories of the Heart (Parashat Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20-30:10/Shabbat Zachor)

02/24/2015 05:54 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

This Shabbat, the weekly Torah portion, Tetzaveh, embraces the consecration of the priesthood to God, and the special designated Torah reading for the Shabbat prior to Purim, known as Shabbat Zachor, commands us to remember/not forget our encounter with Amalek, who sought to destroy us. A kaleidoscope of voices and texts construct and reconstruct our minds and hearts, our past and future.

How do we hold in one breath the High Priest, the metaphorical representation of a perfected human being, and Amalek, the symbol of darkness, doubt, and contracted consciousness? And what is the relationship between remembering and not forgetting?

The linchpin may be the word zachor, "remember", which is not only the traditional name of this Shabbat, but also describes the function of the High Priest's breastplate. In the special reading for this Shabbat, we are directed: "Zachor--remember what Amalek did to you on the way...do not forget/lo tishkach" (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). In relation to the breastplate we are taught in Parshat Tetzaveh: "And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel on the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goes in to the holy place, for a memorial [l'zikaron, from the same root as zachor] before God continually" (Exodus 28: 29). What is the particular quality of memory that dwells on one's heart? Is there a way in which we could collectively embody this consciousness, in an attempt to overcome the grip of doubt and darkness on our lives and constructively shape our future?

I have learned from the International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers that in decision making, the question to ask is: "Seven generations forward" - what is the impact of this act on the future of my future? I find this imperative especially challenging coming from a tradition that has so much of its practice based on remembrance of the past: Shabbat as a remembrance of God's creation of the world and our slavery; holy days to commemorate leaving Egypt, receiving the Torah, and the protection of the clouds of glory as we wandered through the desert. But I wonder if that is what the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav meant when he taught us of our obligation to "remember the World-That-Is-Coming" as a daily spiritual practice?"

How do we "remember" our future? Perhaps the injunction to "not forget" refers to the past and the memory of our mind, while "remember" calls us to think about the future from the memory of the heart, on which the breastplate of judgment rests?

There is another source that weds memory and heart, to be found in the teachings of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, based on the prophecy of Malachi: "Then they who feared God spoke to one another; and God listened and heard it, and a Book of Remembrance [sefer zikaron] was written before Him for those who feared God and took heed of His name."

The Ishbitzer Rebbe asks, what is God's "Book of Remembrance"? In those moments when we are able to have an experience of graciousness of spirit, what he calls tovat ayin (literally "a goodness of eye"), when we take joy in the success and bounty that God bestows upon the other without an aspiration of claiming it for ourselves or coveting it in any way, our eyes--our metaphoric windows to our heart--are open to the glory of the other, and the ultimate Source of Glory inscribes this on our heart. It is our heart, formed through our deeds and our consciousness, that constitutes God's "Book of Remembrance." This, for the Ishbitzer Rebbe, is the ultimate sacrifice that we offer to God: our tovat ayin in regard to the abundance with which someone else was blessed.

Chapter 6 of Book of Esther, read on Purim in the week after Shabbat Zachor begins with a sleepless king who calls for the Book of Remembrance to be read to him. It is here that he hears of Mordechai's intervention on his behalf and our story of redemption begins to unfold, the future transformed. The Babylonian Talmud (Ta'anit 15b) suggests that "the King" is no less than God, that God was sleepless, wanting our redemption.

Is this the same Book of Remembrance that the Ishbitzer Rebbe is speaking of? I don't think so.

His Book of Remembrance, of tovat ayin, is focused on our inner relationship with other individuals and with God, but the Book of Remembrance in Esther is about transforming communal life through action. This demands not just peeking through the windows of our heart at our intentions, but taking action through deeds that are the arms of the heart.

This Shabbat, leading us into the celebration of Purim, is a call to not forget our past--but for the sake of hitting the streets in the coming week, to foster the "memory" of the future that might transform the World-That-Is-Coming and affect our next seven generations. May we merit to partner with each other and with God in this transformation!

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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