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Making Memories In the Middle: Navigating Jewish Identity Across Generations Post-October 7©

Updated: May 21

Parashat Vayikra 2024/Shabbat Zachor 5784

This summer, I was having lunch with a rabbi around my age, who was going through the same things. We spoke about what it meant to not just be the sandwich generation in our families but the sandwich generation in Judaism: to be able to understand our teens and the world they live in somewhat, while those of an older generation are usually at a complete loss. We are the only people to have known people who lived in a completely different reality that our young people could never fully understand. 

Try explaining to a young person today how you’ve known people, your grandparents (or, in my case, parent), who would go to the bathroom in an outhouse, or that they had to actually go to the library to research things if they were lucky enough to have a library; or the unique smells of horses in the streets.

Conversely, explain to a 90-year-old the difference between Instacart, TikTok, Instagram, and SpaceX. 

There’s a saying: Grandchildren and grandparents get along so well because they share a common enemy. It might be because we, the parents of the future generation and the children of the past generation, know each side better because we can understand each other’s worlds better, which can lead to more struggle, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. 

For the youth, the world is about hope and opportunity - the future is boundless and universal. We, the ‘sandwich generation’ remember those college days well (or some more so than others)! But, when taken too far, one may say this mindset can border on a dangerous naiveté with terrible consequences. 

For those who have lived in this world much longer, the generation ahead, who have seen the disappointments of humanity’s development, they see the world with well-deserved cynicism, a very different view than those first starting. And I think I’m finally beginning to understand it. As American novelist Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

But, when taken too far, this mindset can lead to cruelty and outdated parochialism. 

But I can see both sides. Between particularism and universalism - the past and the future. 

This is what Jewish memory is - it is not just a way to remember facts, but also the experience. Jewish memory is about reliving the experiences today in order to have a Jewish future. 

Jewish holidays are not about praying and eating…I mean they are, but they are about so much more than just that. Jewish holidays are experiences that cross the boundaries of time. We are trying to recapture the experience that our ancestors felt. On Passover we say, “We B’Chol Dor VaDor - Each person is obligated to look at themselves as if they themselves had left Egypt.” We don’t eat matzah because it’s delicious (few Jews think so, but there are matzah fans out there), we eat matzah because we want to experience what it was like to be a slave almost nothing. And our sacred task is to learn from those experiences and apply those lessons to our lives today, while also maintaining these ideas in order to pass them down to a next generation. 

This week is a special Shabbat named for memory: Shabbat Zachor. 

In our Maftir this week, in Deuteronomy 25:17-19, we read: 

זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם׃ 

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— 

אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כׇּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִים׃

how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְי אֱ–לֹהֶיךָ  לְךָ מִכׇּל־אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְי־אֱ–לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ 

נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת־זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח׃ {פ}

Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget. 

Amalek was the first nation to attack the Israelites in the wilderness, attacking them from behind so as to target the weak and weary stragglers, the most vulnerable in the camp. Amalek gets a special infamous place in our tradition. We both have to blot out their memory, and never forget what they did to us. 

This is why we boo Haman, who was a descent of Amalek, on Purim, to blot out his name. But there’s also a dark side to this commandment: the annihilation of the Amalekite nation, including women and children. Our Sages reinterpreted this commandment, and even in recent history, Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim, the second Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, clarifies that this commandment cannot be extended to any other nation, even to those who perpetrated the horrors of the Holocaust. 

It seems I wouldn’t have to say it, but I feel like I must - if the Nazis aren’t included in Amalek, neither can the Palestinians or even Hamas. In other words, this law cannot be used to justify genocide. 

Nevertheless, the parallels are striking. A genocidal enemy whose strategy is to target Jewish civilians, including seniors, children, and newborn babies. 

Hamas has become experts in building tunnels and terrorism, but they’re also quite adept at gaslighting. How do you get out of being punished for performing genocide upon a people? Charge those same people with genocide. 

So sitting here, as an approaching middle-aged person, and seeing young Jews ignore the horrors of Hamas, to side with those who say that resistance by any means necessary, that we do not need a Jewish state, I say, I have seen the face of a Jew who was targeted for genocide, my grandparents of blessed memory. There was no IDF to stop the initial attack; there was no one to stop it. It happened slowly over a few years, but it was quite efficient. And then, the entire European Jewish civilization was gone in six years. 

I think about the conversations I’ve had with my grandfather who lived until he was 98, but conversations that my children never had, or will ever have. When I asked him, when he was a much younger man, how did you survive? 

And he said, “I survived so that no one would ever forget what happened to us.” It is one thing to read these words or to hear me say them, but I cannot stress how these words, all of his words, meant something more profound and unique because they came from someone who lived through those experiences. 

This is the memory I invoke today, and it’s not mine alone, but all of ours as a Jewish people. Hamas is a genocidal death cult led by hate-filled billionaires living in luxury in Qatar; they are not the freedom fighters fighting for a better tomorrow for all. 

My message as someone sitting in the middle is - we cannot be naive. Israel was not created because of the Holocaust, but the Holocaust could never have happened without a Jewish state of Israel. 

This is why Israel fights this war. 

Remembering Amalek gives us the strength and courage to persevere, but it also leaves us with other side effects. 

On a surface level, it seems that we are commanded to remember the trauma of being attacked by Amalek, but remembering trauma isn’t such a good thing for us. There’s a reason why women can’t remember the pain of childbirth all too well, because if they did, likely none of us would be here today. Memory research shows that PTSD is a result of the human brain malfunctioning. We are supposed to forget traumatic events. 

In our case, remembering Amalek isn’t about reliving trauma but reliving how it changed us.

In verse 18, the Torah says, “אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ” - the translation is how he encountered you on the way, but the Midrash (Tanchuma Ki Teitze, Siman 9) sees the word Kar as related to cold. When we left Egypt, we were hot, in other words, filled up with confidence because of the miracles that God did on our behalf. We felt invincible, but then Amalek attacked us when few would. Amalek cooled us down and made us feel powerless and weak. The Etz Chaim Chumash commentary offers another explanation: the real sin of Amalek was that he robbed Bnai Israel of their idealism, teaching them that the world could be an unreliable and dangerous place. 

And this is the message for a generation that has seen the worst of humanity against the Jews firsthand: we cannot be made to become cruel by our enemies. 

There are hints of how Amalek changes the way we think about ourselves. Some commentators say that the line that Amalek did not fear God was directed to Bnai Israel; when we lose faith in God, in a world where we have compassion and empathy for the powerless, we make ourselves vulnerable to Amalek and their worldview. 

And this is what I fear most of all - the hardening of our hearts. 

We cannot close our eyes to the suffering of others, even those who may be our enemies now. This is where the youth can teach us about how the future could be different than the past, that we are not destined to live out the same scripts over and over. They can challenge us to be self-reflective, to challenge us by asking us, we may not be guilty of the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, but are we responsible for alleviating the suffering of the innocents, even if you think there are few innocents? 

Eating a sandwich is great, being a sandwich, not so much. But, being in the middle of it all gives us an interesting perspective and valuable lessons to teach the world. And there is no better time than Purim to share these lessons with the world, to stop the Hamans of the world before they spread, while also upholding our core values that make us who we are, and who we are meant to be. 

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