The Torah portion we read this week is named “Ki Teitzei”, and it features 3 distinct narratives that hinge on memory:
- Moses retells the episode where the tribe of Amalek attacked the Israelites on their way out of Egypt. In this case we are commanded both “not to forget” (what they did) and to erase their legacy (which could be thought of as memory-in-reverse).
- There’s the commandment of Yibum, or “Levirite marriage” – where a man dies without having any children, and therefore his brother is encouraged to have a child with the widow – biologically his but spiritually his brother’s – so that the deceased man’s legacy (again, a form of memory) will not be lost.
- Finally, there’s the description of the rebellious son, an adult child who is irredeemable according to societal standards, and uncontrollable according to his parents and is therefore sentenced to death. The reasoning for this, according to Talmudic sources, is that he will clearly resort to theft, then robbery, then mugging, then murder, and then “he will forget what he learned”. The memory of the Torah values he was taught as a child will be lost to him, and thus any chance for redemption will have passed beyond his reach.
(I should note that each of these sections requires significant context to understand fully. To our modern sensibilities (and especially given the poor summary I’ve provided here), each of these 3 narratives feel jarring, barbaric, or just plain wrong. I’d urge anyone not to rely on my explanations as the be-all, end-all of Torah learning.)
What the Torah is showing us, by putting these 3 lessons together in the same reading, is the power of memory, and our responsibility with regard to it.
With negative memories such as Amalek, we are commanded both to remember the lesson, but blot out the legacy. With Yibum we are commanded the opposite – to preserve the legacy. And with the rebellious son, we are cautioned that our mistakes are not always because we forgot our lessons first, but rather that our forgetting can be the final step off the path of redemption.
In this month of Elul we are offered the chance to come together as a community and perform the sometimes painful act of remembering. But as hard as it may be to remember and confront the times in the past year when we fell short of expectations – whether they are expectations of others or our own – the risk of forgetting is too dire, and the reward for doing the hard work too great.