Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
on the weekly parasha by
Meir Levin

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Zakhor 5765

This week in honor of Purim we will explore a Midrashic passage that discusses the commandment to remember and destroy Amalek. This obligation is expressed in the following verse: " Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you went out of Egypt …do not forget (Devarim 26,17-19).

On this the Toras Kohanim in Bechukosai 2 comments:

"Remember - you might think, "in the heart". When it says, "do not forget", forgetting in the heart has already been said. How do I understand "remember"? That you should say it with your mouth. (i.e. read the megillah on Purim) [1].

At first glance, this passage appears to be a classical derash, far form the simple meaning of the Bibilcal words. Where and how did the Sages see the obligation of Megillah reading in the above verse?

To understand this Midrashic passage, let us consider how the word "zakhor" used in this verse can be translated into English. There seem to be several candidates for a translation. We have, of course, the usual translation "remember"; however, there are also other contenders. They include words such as: recall, remind, reminisce, and commemorate. Each of these words has a different connotation. "Remember" itself connotes simple natural awareness of a memory, something that just is, something that does not need to be maintained; the others contain within them various degrees of activity and effort.

The Sages understood the word "zakhor" as more akin to the latter group.

Remember (zakhor) the Sabbath day (Shemos 20)" - commemorate (zakhreihu) over wine (to say Kiddush) [2].

In fact, for the meaning "zakhor" as awareness, you would use a different word. You would expres it as "not forgetting".

He who forgets his learning transgresses a negative commandment, as it says: "Lest you forget these things and lest they leave your heart… You may think that this applies even if one's learning overpowers him. The Torah states:" Lest they leave your heart". One is not liable unless he sits down and actively uproots them from his heart(Avos 3:8).

In other words, the Torah commands you to remember, that is to retain what you had learned. It is expressed as a commandment to not forget. What is forbidden is to consciously and deliberately attenuate or erase these memories. Contrast this kind of memory with recall, reminding, review and commemoration, which are active and directed.

What this means is that when "zakhor" is placed next to "lo tishkach", each refers to different kind of memory. The former only demands that you passively remain aware but the latter demands some kind of action to externalize and strengthen the memory. This active remembering may include review of relevant laws, a prescribed Torah reading or a performance of a ritual act [3]. The Sages are not making a "derash"; they are revealing to us the exact meaning of Hebrew words.

The same undersanding is found in Bareishis Rabbah 88:7 on the verse The chief butler did not (zakhar) remember Yosef and (vayshkacheuhu) he forgot him (Bareishis 40:23). The Midrash defines the difference between remembering and not forgetting:

Every day the butler made conditions (at dinnertime I will mention Yosef to Pharaoh; at nightfall I will tell Pharaoh about Yosef - Eitz Yosef), and the angel came and confused him. Every day the butler tied knots to remind himself and every day the angel came and untied them,

One has to appreciate that tying knots for the ancients was like taking notes is for us. The knots remind you of what you meant to recall. It is in allusion to this that the knots of the tzitzis serve to "remember all the commandments". The butler performed specific actions to " ( zakhor )remember" Yosef but to no avail. Not only did his review not help him, he did not even retain an awareness of Yosef ( vayshkacheuhu) and his special ability to interpret dreams.

Realizing that "zakhor" is a word that includes an activity associated with remembering, allows us to understand how the Chazal derived Megillah reading or parshas Zakhor from the simple meaning of the verses.

Learning Point : Many, although not all instances of "derash far removed from the simple meaning", are in fact examples of informed reading of the verses by people who understood and appreciated the precise significance and nuance of Biblical Hebrew much better than we do. It is an error to assume that the words that we usually use to translate specific Hebrew words, correctly represent all the shading and nuances of the original. Considering the whole range of cognate English words can sometimes cue us into the unique and specific meaning of the Hebrew word and reveal the basis of Midrashic comment.

Good Shabbos and freilechen happy Purim,

M. Levin


1 See Marcheshes 20 who explains that the enactment of megillah reading is a fulfillment fo the commandment to remember and persevere in the struggle against Amalek. Others explain that this midrash is the source of the Biblical obligation fo parshas Zakhor.

2 Pesachim 106a. See Tosafos there.

3 Examples: review-study of the laws of Seder night or Shabbos laws, recall-eating matza on Passover. commemoration-reading parshas Zakhor. For a detailed discussion of this concept as it impacts on many different areas, please see my With All Your Heart: The Shema in Jewsih Worship, Practice and Life, Targum/ Feldheim, 1002, 157-183