Zachor: History Revisited

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“Remember what Amalek did to you...do not forget.” Such memory is more than a biblical command, it is a historical reality. While the Torah may have been written 3,500 years ago, it is—almost by definition—a book of current events. Our Sages note that only 55 of the thousands of prophets who spoke the word of G-d had their words recorded for posterity, as only these 55 spoke words that are relevant for all time. While the names, dates and places may change, the fundamental issues—be they of a moral, communal or personal nature—never truly change. Insight into life today is found within our biblical text.

Interestingly, our Sages initially rejected the inclusion of the Purim story in the biblical canon as it seemed to add nothing new, and thus, had no permanent message (see Megillah 7a). Ironically, it is Purim, perhaps more than any other holiday, which speaks to us most forcefully today. Haman and Achashverosh were the first Persian leaders to desire “to destroy, slay and exterminate all Jews, young and old, children and women, in a single day." Unfortunately, they were not the last.

If our enemies should have taught us anything, it is that the fate of all Jews is intertwined. While we Jews may desire to separate from other, different Jews, the nations of the world understand, often more keenly than we ourselves, that the Jewish people are one. The often-trivial differences—and viewed in historical perspective, so many of our differences are trivial—that drive us apart from one another are ignored by those who desire our downfall. They have a keen understanding of “Kol Yisrael areiveem zeh b’zeh”, that all the people of Israel are responsible for one another. The term used to describe our interconnectedness is areiveem. An areiv is a co-signer, making him responsible to repay if the borrower should default. The actions or inactions of one Jew affect all others.

It is not by chance that the nations of the world project the actions of one Jew upon all the others. While that may not seem fair to us, it is part of the historical destiny of the Jewish people.

This statement is a legal one, allowing, even obligating, one who has fulfilled a mitzvah to repeat such a mitzvah for the benefit of others. One who has already heard the megillah may read it over and over again for those who have not. But it is much more than a legal principle, binding Jews together from all times and all places. This is one of the reasons that the recital of Kaddish is, despite its relatively insignificant halachic importance, endowed with such significance. The child's meticulousness in going to shul daily, in associating death with the eternity of the Jewish people, reflects most positively on their deceased parents.

Rav Soloveitchik notes that the Day of Atonement is called Yom Kippurim, and not the singular Yom Kippur, because both the living and dead are judged each year. It can take years, even centuries, until the full impact of a person's life can be properly assessed.

“And he cried a great and bitter cry” (Breisheet 27:34). Yaakov, rightly or not (the commentaries debate this at great length), “stole” the blessings from his brother, causing great anguish to Eisav. That action impacted not only on the rest of Jacobs's life; the consequences were felt for generations to come.

“And [Mordechai] cried a deep and bitter cry” (Esther 4:1). Our Sages note that Eisav's anguish was unleashed over one thousand years later in Shushan, where it was the Jewish people who needed to cry. And while Haman may have promised the king 10,000 shekels for the right to kill the Jews, that plan was thwarted by the half shekel that Jews had been bringing, year in and year out, to maintain the temple. “It was known to the one who created the world that Haman would raise shekels [in order to destroy the] Jews; thus, He preceded our shekels to his” (Megillah 13b). By giving an almost-negligible half-shekel, we have the power to change the course of history.

One can never know the impact that one's actions will have, reverberating through time and history. That is an awesome responsibility, but a wonderful opportunity.