I am not a fan of those large brass or granite memorials that have hundreds and sometimes thousands of names on them. I feel that it is an injustice to read just a few of the names, and it trivializes the magnitude of the disaster. In my perfect world, a memorial should aim to pull at my heart strings and allow me unfettered access and insight into the tragedy. A nondescript artistic piece or a haunting melody often will have greater success in penetrating the inner recesses of my heart. I certainly am not advocating against memorials or monuments as people find solace in various ways; it is just that to remember is an essential part of our collective being and one model does not fit everyone’s needs.
Last week we discussed the concept of the Exodus and the mitzvah of remembering what our ancestors went through during and after their enslavement in Egypt. This week’s Parsha continues that theme; the Israelites leave the mental confinement of an enslaved people and begin their journey to freedom. Most of us comprehend that slavery incorporates two components: physical labor and mental anguish. Yet, freedom is not only a cessation of the physical oppression, but more so requires a reboot of the brain. The mind needs years and perhaps decades to be reprogrammed to think and act on its own. The slave’s brain atrophies and causes one to lose the ability to think because they have been dependent on their master. Thus, the free person must learn how to become independent and think independently.
It is easy to make demands, but to expect people to heed your demand without defining its parameters is setting them up for failure. Yet some may say this is exactly what the Torah is doing; it gives us a commandment to remember without defining how to accomplish those demands. Therefore, the answer must be straightforward and require only a comprehension of the terminology “remember”. Even someone in a cursory relationship with Judaism will find the word “zachor” used rather frequently. It’s usually translated as “remember” and is found numerous times in the Torah: “Remember the Exodus” or “Remember the Sabbath” or “Remember what the Amalakites did.” The most hallowed of our prayers is called “Yizkor” (same root) where we remember the souls of those in our family that are no longer living. Common sense would dictate that to remember is not an act of passivity; we are not being commanded to do nothing at all. Sitting back in your Lazyboy (that is for the men) and reminiscing about something or someone seems an inadequate means of performing a mitzvah.
Perhaps the art of remembering is dependent on the concise etymology of the word “Zachor.” I believe it may be related to the Hebrew word “zach,” as in “shemen zayit zach,” or pure as in pure olive oil. Let’s examine the properties of pure olive oil versus regular or impure olive oil. The purity means that there are no additives, processing or contaminates. There is nothing that changes the essence into something else that may make it more palatable or marketable. The oil flows without any external pressure; it is exactly what nature intended it to be. Often the problem with our remembrances is that we are not remembering; we are analyzing, pontificating and deciphering. During my few moments of reciting Yizkor, I don’t want my thoughts to recreate or sanitize the memory of my loved ones; I want a purity of remembering exactly who they were. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel and turn Shabbat into something that is fashionable for the 21st century; I want Shabbat to impact and energize us. I want the unadulterated spirit of Hashem resting on the seventh day to imbue us with the feeling of serenity. Refraining from work and saying “good Shabbas” has very little to do with the pursuit of purity; it is the merely the means to allow the pure flowing of Shabbat to permeate and envelop us.
It is also possible that the word “Zachor” is etymologically associated with the word “Zachar” inferring a masculine relationship to the art of remembering. Gender in our lexicon is often meant to introduce either a male dimension associated with power and intensity or a female dimension often creating a softer more expressive relationship. It would follow the premise found in the book “Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus.” This idea can be highlighted by analyzing biblical words such as Chachmah/wisdom, Binah/understanding and Torah. Each of these words end with the letter “Heh,” indicating the female gender, to highlight a loftier and more spiritual component. They are based on the relationship females have to receiving. Wisdom, understanding and Torah all necessitate the transmission of information into a willing receptacle. It is neither denigrating nor sexist. On the contrary, it is a tool used to better appreciate and understand the subject matter. I just spoke to our caretaker, George, who assures me that this concept is not unique to Hebrew. Even in the world of wires and tools, male and female references make it easier for tradesmen to comprehend the purpose of each item.
As all individuals are not created equal (with apologies to Abraham Lincoln), each person must find a tool to aid them in their quest to fulfill the biblical commandment to remember. In choosing to relate to the word “Zachor” as taking its root from the word for masculinity, the concept of remembering may be easier for some to comprehend. There is no definitive root word and thus no definitive meaning of the word Zachor; there are only possibilities.
Rabbi Jack Engel
Rabbinic Tidbits on Tu B’shvat
Did you know that TU refers to the Hebrew letters Tet and the Vav, which are equal to 15, as it is the 15th day in the month of Sh’vat that marks the New Year for fruits.
TU is used as the number 15 instead of the letters Yud =10 and Heh =5 as those two letter put together is the name of God which we do not say in vain.
In the 16st Century, Kabbalists in Sefad had a Seder on Tu B’shvat that used fruits instead of wine and matzah.
It is also customary to eat fruits that are from the Land of Israel.
Tu B’shvat is a minor holiday and we do not say the Kel Malei memorial prayer. The Tachanun prayer is also omitted during Shacharit and Mincha.