A Living Memory

Amalek, forgetting, and the lessons of Jewish memory.

Yishai Schwartz
Yishai Schwartz recently completed a clerkship with Judge José Cabranes of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Previously, he was an associate editor at Lawfare and a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. His writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, National Affairs, Haaretz, Tablet and other general and Jewish publications.

There is a paradox at the heart of the Hebrew Bible’s greatest struggle.

The Israelites have just left Egypt and crossed the Sea of Reeds when, suddenly, the Amalekites attack, striking at the stragglers. Led by Joshua and inspired by Moses, the Israelites beat back the assault. But the conflict is not over. God himself vows to annihilate Amalek’s memory. Yet at the same time, he commands Moses to preserve that memory: “Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly erase the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens.”

Forty years later, the paradoxical call to remember and to erase is repeated, and made permanent. As Moses delivers his farewell address to the Israelites poised to cross the Jordan, he returns to the subject. “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt,” he instructs. “Therefore . . . you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.”

Inevitably, it seems, our contemporary debates demand a reckoning with memory and erasure. We invoke analogies to the past—Jim Crow, appeasement, internment, reconstruction—as we argue politics. And increasingly, we clash over whom and how to remember—debating what monuments must come down and whose stories must be taught. Collective memory is now both the arsenal and the battlefield of communal conflict.

No universal principle can resolve such conflicts. But there are lessons that might guide us in negotiating our way through them. And so perhaps the Jewish experience of remembering and forgetting, of wrestling with this most paradoxical commandment, may shed new light.

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