Annually, one of my last stops in Israel is at the duty-free music store in Ben Gurion Airport. I like to pick up a new recording of Israeli or Jewish music or at least listen to the new options they are playing for other shoppers. This time, my mission was to buy the first season of “S’rugim” which translates as “Crocheted” and is a reference to young religious Israelis and their daily life experiences. The salesman helped me find what I was looking for and started suggesting additional options. He clearly had me sized up and pegged to my age cohort and brought me new and classic recordings of Shlomo Artzi, Shalom Chanoch, Sarit Haddad and Arik Einstein. He paused, looked at me again and said, “I bet you would love this new recording from Yehuda Poliker.” How did this guy know? Was it the bit of gray showing up in my hair?
The fact is, I love the music of Yehuda Poliker. I first heard it in 1990-1991 when I studied in Israel during my rabbinical school year. Poliker’s music was a soothing balm during the stresses of the first Gulf War. They served as the uplifting tones that energized me while working with recently arrived members of the second aliyah from Ethiopia. The only rock concert I ever attended in my life was Yehuda Poliker live at the Roman Amphitheater on Mt. Scopus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Poliker’s music is haunting, inspiring, energizing. Drawing on his family roots from Saloniki, Greece, Poliker weaves together rhythms and tones, as well as lyrics, from Greece, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. His music touches my soul in a very deep way.
The salesman brought over the new recording. Titled כל דבר מזכיר לי, “Every Thing Reminds Me...” the CD is a combination of love songs and life songs. On almost all of Poliker’s recordings, at least one title is sung in Greek. This new CD begins with the title song in Greek and ends with the same song translated into Hebrew. כל דבר מזכיר לי is a powerful, sad song of longing. In everything - every moment, every image, every place - the singer sees and feels and longs for a lover who is no longer. It is not clear if the lover is dead or just gone but she is definitely no longer there. The power of זכרון, of memory, is so intense you can feel and hear it in the singer’s voice. What is not clear is whether or not the strength of memory is holding the singer back from moving forward with his life or if there is just an intense sadness as he navigates the tasks of daily living. When is memory a blessing and when is it a curse?
Memory is at the heart of this Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim. On Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat of Remembrance, the maftir aliyah is read from a second Torah scroll and is taken from Deuteronomy 25:17-19:
זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיך -וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹקים. וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ היְ אֱלֹקֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הי-אֱלֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח
Remember What Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget!
As we prepare to remember and blot out Haman and Zeresh, and to remember joyously our ancestors Esther and Mordechai, the special reading for Shabbat Zachor with its admonition to blot out the memory of our historical enemy, Amalek, serves as the context-setter for Haman as Amalek’s midrashic descendant. I find the language of this reading confusing. After all, the Torah commands us to “Remember” what Amalek did to our ancestors while simultaneously commanding us to erase or “blot out” the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Is it possible to remember and blot out at the same time? If so, how? Finally, what role does the phrase ”...when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you...” play in explaining the apparent contradiction between commanding memory and commanding the blotting out of memory?
One possible explanation is that until such time as the Jewish People lives in complete safety from all enemies in all places, when ultimate Peace is granted from the Heavens, that we are obligated to remember that there are ongoing threats to our existence. Perhaps by being cognizant of these threats, we will work harder to create conditions favorable to achieving the Messianic Era and the World Peace that comes with it. At that time, we will blot out the memory of hatred for it will be irrelevant for all eternity. According to this explanation, memory serves as a motivator not to achieve the negative of slaughter but to bring about the positive condition of Peace in the world. The retaining of the memory of a national homeland in The Promised Land ultimately led to the positive outcome of the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Remembering Gilad Shalit while in captivity provided the energy and motivation to achieve his release even at the highest of prices. Memory of this sort can link people together across cities and countries and ideologies in order to reach achievements that might have seemed impossible otherwise.
If the above explanation provides me with an understanding of the positive power of memory, however, I am still left with the question of its negative consequences. Memory preserving hatred leads to ethnic cleansing, to vengeance on the individual and national level. Memory in the form of longing for that which is lost and never to return, be it love or a loved one, can paralyze a person, preventing them from moving forward into a new and more positive phase of life, to finding love anew, to find new motivation for purpose in life. Finally, the power of Memory can prevent innovation and change. “We have always done it this way”, if more than just a sweet recalling of prior experience, serves to block change when it is demanded because the world changes or required because certain conditions change. When memory serves to stagnate and stifle, it leads to whithering and extinction.
Salo Baron z”l, the dean of modern Jewish historians, argued against what he referred to as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” a scholarly viewpoint that he believed was mistaken as it looked only at the various periods of persecution of the Jewish people while ignoring any and all positive periods or events in Jewish life, thought and culture. For Baron and his disciples, remembrance of Jewish history must be far more than the book “Every Day Remembrance Day,” a work that lists all of the tragedies that befell Jews on each and every day of the year. Jewish memory has to include positive achievements in economics, in theology, in art, in science, etc throughout history. On this Shabbat, as we remember what Amalek did to us, as we keep fresh in our mind what the modern descendants of Amalek, in all of their forms, attempt to do to the Jewish People and to the world, I also encourage each of us to remember and be motivated by our positive history and memories, by positive achievements and accomplishments, and that these memories help us to discover new inner strengths to change the world and ourselves in positive ways.
As I prepare for Shabbat, the music of Yehuda Poliker plays from my iPhone and yes, כל דבר מזכיר לד “Everything reminds me.” The sounds and the smells, the tastes and the tasks of getting ready for Shabbat remind me of what I love about Shabbat. They remind me of sweet Shabbatot in the past. And they stir thoughts about the sweet Shabbatot to come - those in Chicago, those on Lake Buckatabon, and those in our Jewish national homeland, Israel.