Abraham Joshua Heschel’s challenge to explore the “soul” of words in our prayers (see last week’s post) suggests consideration of “zakhor [remember],” which occurs several times in the portion Ki Teitzei:
Remember [zakhor] what HASHEM, your God, did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt. — Deut./Devarim 24:9
You shall not pervert the judgment of a proselyte or orphan, and you shall not take the garment of a widow as a pledge. You shall remember [v’zakharta] that you were a slave in Egypt, and HASHEM, you God, redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing. — Deut./Devarim 24:17-18
Remember [zakhor] what Amelek did to you on the way when you were leaving Egypt….wipe out the memory [zekher and/or: zakhor] …you shall not forget! — Deut./Devarim 25:17
— all translations from Stone Chumash*
Uses of zakhor in this portion, then, call on the People to remember
—as a cautionary tale/reminder of punishment,
—as an explanatory motivation for protecting vulnerable individuals, and
—as a part of a permanent, existential relationship.
The siddur employs similar uses of the word.
Caution, Motivation, Relationship
Caution: The third paragraph of the Shema (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:37-41), explains that tzitzit serve to remind us [u’zikhartem, tizkiru] of the commandments and of the need to observe them. This paragraph is sandwiched between dire warnings about God’s wrath at disloyalty, in the Shema’s second paragraph (Deut. 11:13-21), and the subsequent blessing which celebrates redemption from Egypt. The latter traditionally includes language — omitted or adapted in Reform and some other contemporary prayer books — comparing the fate of (wicked) Egypt with that of the (beloved) People.
Motivation: In the opening blessing of the Amidah, we call on God “who remembers [zokheir] the piety of our ancestors and brings a redeemer to their descendants for the sake of his name in love” (translation from My People’s Prayer Book: The Amidah*). In this week’s portion, God’s redeeming the People from Egypt is meant as motivation for our scrupulous treatment of oppressed individuals. In this blessing, the ancestors’ piety is meant as motivation for God’s ultimate redemption of us.
Relationship: In the Friday night kiddush, Shabbat is sanctified both “in memory of acts of creation [zikaron l’maasei breishit]” (as in Exodus 20:11) and “a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt [zekher li-tziat mitrayim]” (as in Deut. 5:15). Although the kiddush blessing closes by saying that God sanctifies Shabbat, Marc Brettler notes:
…the idea that Israel, not God, must sanctify Shabbat is more frequent in the Bible (e.g., Jer. 17:22; Ezel. 20:20; Neh. 13:22). This is a subtle but important difference: is Shabbat intrinsically holy from creation, or is it holy only when properly observed by Jews? God’s sanctification of the Shabbat recollects God’s sanctification of Israel (…”with his commandments”), thus uniting God, Israel, and Shabbat as a crucial theological threesome.
— p. 96, Brettler (“our biblical heritage”), My People’s Prayer Book: Shabbat at Home*
Memory as Summons
Lawrence Hoffman adds an explanation of “what the Rabbis of antiquity meant by ‘memory'”:
The Rabbis thought of time the way we think of space. For them, it was possible literally to revisit the past or, better, to summon the past to reappear before us again, as if we were in it all over again. “Memory,” then, in the sense of zekher, denotes real revisiting of time. Zekher is like a signpost in time, pointing our way as we revisit it, the way a directional sign at a crossroads sends us to a destination in space where we have stood before.
At the Passover Seder, we quote Hillel, who ate matzah, maror, and the pesach (the paschal lamb offering) “in memory of [zekher l’] the Temple.” But Hillel lived before the Temple was destroyed. How could have have done something “in memory of” what still existed? He could do so precisely because the Rabbis thought of time and space as similar. The Temple might have still stood in time, but it was distant in space and had to be summoned up.
Both time and space, then, could be summoned from afar to re-present themselves to us as perfectly real, but only with pointers that showed they way to them. Liturgy, in general, served as such pointers. By enacting the liturgy, things past and far away became present and real.
— p.114, L. Hoffman, (“history of the liturgy”) in My People’s Prayer Book: Shabbat at Home
In this context, the “ya’aleh v’yavo… [may these arise and come forth]” passage of the Amidah — recited on Rosh Hodesh and intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot — seems to “summon” memories and then offer those in place of the former sacrifices:
…may these arise, come forth…and be remembered before You…:
our ancestors’ memory;
the memory of the messiah, son of David your servant;
the memory of Jerusalem, your holy city;
and the memory of the entire house of Israel, your People…
Asking God to “remember us for life” during the Days of Awe has a similar “summoning” or “pointing” quality. It’s not a question of God remembering, as in not forgetting, but of calling up or pointing to a year of life.
For our own part, we might use the Zikhronot prayers of Rosh Hashanah as summons of, or pointers to, our own true selves.
Moreover, as in this portion’s use of zakhor, we can hear the shofar blasts as:
—caution: warning us of the damage we can do ourselves and others when off the mark;
—motivation: reminding us of our own vulnerability and consequent responsibility to protect the vulnerability of others; and
—relationship: a reverberation of the same theological threesome recognized in the Friday night kiddush — God, Israel and time.
* For complete citations and details, see Source Materials.
For the convenience of subscribers, here are links to additional ki teitzei notes.