Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Wish I Could Seduce You in the Nude (Bava Kama 86b)

Yesterday's Daf (Bava Kama 86) considers the question of whether a naked person can be embarrassed. The Talmud begins by quoting a Braita which states, "If one embarrasses someone while he is naked, he [the embarrasser] is liable, and embarrassing someone naked is not the same as embarrassing someone when he is clothed…. Our master said: If one embarrasses someone when he is naked, he is liable. But is a naked person capable of being embarrassed? (?ערום בר בושת הוא) Rather, this refers to a case where the wind has bunched up his clothes and a person comes and lifts his clothing further, thereby embarrassing him."

The Talmud, although at first asserting that it is indeed possible to embarrass someone while that person is naked, goes on to question this assumption. As Rashi explains, "Since he does not care about walking around naked in front of others, what does he have to be embarrassed about?" Presumably a person who does not mind if others see him naked is immune to other people's opinions of him, and is therefore not susceptible to embarrassment. The Talmud is then left with the question as to why the Braita taught that a person is indeed liable for embarrassing someone who is naked, and concludes that this was a person who was at first only partially naked. The embarrasser comes along and exposes him even further, and thus he is considered to be liable.

The discussion of the relationship between nakedness and embarrassment immediately conjures, in my mind, the seduction scene in the garden of Eden, where we are told that "The two of them were naked (ערומים), the man and his wife, yet they felt no shame (יתבוששו). Now the serpent was the shrewdest (ערום) of all the wild beasts that the Lord had made." Adam and Eve, when they are naked, are not capable of experiencing embarrassment. They do not view their sexuality as something to hide, and thus they walk about freely in the garden, unclothed. Once they eat of the fruit, however, they become capable of embarrassment, and their first act is to cover themselves. In this new state of self-consciousness, they realize that they have something to hide, and they hide it. Milton gives eloquent voice to the moment of Adam's awareness of the need to clothe himself:

But let us now, as in bad plight, devise
What best may, for the present, serve to hide
The parts of each other that seem most
To shame obnoxious, and unseemliest seen--
Some tree, whose broad smooth leaves, together sewed,
And girded on our loins, may cover round
Thos middle parts, that this new comer, Shame,
There sit not, and reproach us as unclean. (Book IX lines 1091-1098)

Shame is the key word in this passage, suggesting that the major difference between before and after Adam and Eve eat the fruit is whether or not they are capable of embarrassment. Before the serpent came on the scene, Adam and Eve were completely comfortable with one another. Their sexuality was nothing to be ashamed of; it was part and parcel of who they were. Jewish tradition does not hold that humanity discovered sexuality only after they ate the fruit; rather, as Rashi states, the snake was impelled to tempt Eve in the first place because "he saw them [Adam and Eve] in naked intercourse, and he desired her." As Rashi's statement teaches us, Adam and Eve had sexual relations before they ate the fruit, before they were capable of being embarrassed.

I wonder about this totally innocent, un-self-conscious sexuality. What was it like? For one, there was probably not much seduction involved. Adam and Eve were like a little boy and a girl playing together naked in a sandbox, unaware that there is anything of which to be ashamed. (Interestingly, right after discussing whether a naked person can be embarrassed, the Daf proceeds with the question of whether a minor (קטן) is capable of embarrassment.) I imagine that at this point Adam and Eve had a relationship of total intimacy, in which there were no barriers separating them from one another. After all, Eve had just been created from Adam's rib, and so in their relationship with each other, they retained the memory of this formerly conjoined state. They were not really two separate beings quite yet, because they shared everything. And they could not be embarrassed yet because embarrassment involves the act of exposing, whereas they were already fully exposed at all times, both in their sameness and in their differentness. (It is interesting to note that their different parts, in the Torah, are referred to as "their embarrassings," as in Deut. 25:11-12, a verse that is frequently quoted in Bava Kama: "If two men get into a fight with each other and the wife of one comes up to save her husband and puts out her hand and seizes him by his embarrassings [במבושיו], you shall cut off her hand." "Embarrassings" is understood to mean genitals, though the word itself comes from Boshet.)

The genitals are not a site of Boshet until after the serpent, when Adam and Eve know a more mature, self-conscious sexuality. Now their differences are something to conceal; and now, presumably, they can flirt and seduce and play games with one another. They are no longer Arum in the sense of naked; they are Arum in the sense of shrewd. This was not God's original intention for humanity, of course. This was not how God envisioned the relationship was to be between man and his help-meet. And most importantly, this was not what God expected when He told them, in the final verse before the serpent comes on to the scene, "Thus shall a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, so that they become one flesh."

I find God's injunction very perplexing in the wake of what follows. After all, it is all very well and good to command man and woman to become one flesh when they have no self-consciousness and no shame and they prance around the garden without a stitch. But I cannot help but wonder: Is this ideal really attainable after Adam and Eve become capable of experiencing shame? Can they really become one being once their differences are a source of self-conscious embarrassment and seductive allure? Or, to phrase the question somewhat more provocatively, are intimacy and eroticism really compatible with one another?

Most (though thankfully not all!) of what I know about seduction comes from literature, and if there is anything I have learned, it is the following: Seduction requires clothing. All the great seduction scenes involve some sort of strip tease. In Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes," my favorite literary seduction, Porphyro hides in Madeleine's chamber and gazes at Madeleine, witnessing the following:

Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed.

The poem's attention is not on the flesh but on the clothing. We do not know what body parts become exposed (nor would we want to know!); we are told only of the unclasped jewels, the loosened bodice, and the rich attire that falls to the floor. This marshalling of elaborate sartorial detail as a form of restraint is of course the source of the poem's seductive power. We, like Porphyro, are in Madeleine's thrall.

This preoccupation with sartorial detail is true of nearly every seduction scene I can recall. Consider Billy Collins' "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes," where the poet, engaged in this very project, tells us that

The complexity of women's undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Dickinson's nakedness is the speaker's ultimate destination, but the entire poem is preoccupied with the journey there. Likewise, Robert Herrick acknowledges in "Upon Julia's Clothes" that what catches his eye about Julia is how she moves in her clothing:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.

And if we consider the most vividly-imagined seduction in the Bible (second only to Eden, perhaps), we are told that "Potiphar's wife would each day try [to attract] Joseph: The clothes she wore in the morning she would not wear in the evening, and the clothes she wore in the evening she would not wear in the morning" (B. Yoma 35b). In case the Talmud's point is lost on us, Rashi clarifies two terms here: "To try" means "to seduce" (thank you, Rashi) and "the clothes" were "for him" (what would we do without you?). The Biblical account relates that Joseph, when he flees, leaves one of his garments with her (ויעזוב בגדו אצלה), perhaps a sign that he refuses to take part in these games of seduction which are all about clothing.

It is often noted that the Hebrew word for clothing, בגד, comes from the same root as the word for "treachery." Clothes are a way of deceiving and tricking; thus Tamar "took off her widow's garb, covered her face with a veil, and wrapped herself up" (Genesis 38:14) in order to seduce Judah. It is not surprising that clothes play such a role in seduction because seduction, too, necessarily involves duplicity. To seduce is to play a game of revelation and concealment; it is to alternately expose and then hide, as in the classic case of the strip tease. But therein lies the rub, because if there is something that you are hiding, then you cannot be completely transparent. So long as you are alternately revealing and concealing, then you are not sharing everything with the other person. Thus seductiveness precludes intimacy.

The converse, I fear, is also true: intimacy precludes seductiveness. If you expose everything and keep nothing from the other person, you lose your allure. As a dear friend once told me, there is nothing seductive about a person who walks around naked all the time. There is nothing exciting about a person who tells you everything about himself, or makes herself completely available from the start. Is a knowing half-smile not infinitely more alluring than an ear-to-ear grin?

I do not have an answer to this quandary. As a person who values honesty and transparency in all my relationships, and yet who also strives for the deepest form of connection with another person, I find this matter deeply troubling. As the Talmud ultimately tells us, one cannot be naked and also be embarrassed. How can we help but long for the intimacy and utter lack of self-consciousness that Adam and Eve knew in the garden? And how can we resist the temptation to reach for the fruit and gaze, mesmerized, as that fragrant bodice rustles to the floor?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why I Leyn: A Manifesto

Last Thursday night I was waiting at a bus stop in Givat Shaul, practicing the leyning that I had xeroxed onto a few folded sheets of paper. Moses was late in coming down the mountain, and the bus was late in coming to our part of Jerusalem, so I went ahead with the golden calf. Although I was chanting very quietly, almost inaudibly, I nevertheless managed to arouse the attention of the two Haredi young men who were waiting with me on the street corner. "Listen to her," one of them said to the other in Hebrew. "I have heard there are girls who do that! Weird, weird. Can you believe it?" I lowered my voice even more, conscious that once again I had become a Curiosity (not to mention a girl!).

I am aware, though, that it is not just among Haredi men that I am regarded as "weird" for my dedication to reading Torah. Anyone who has ever lived with me (including my Catholic college roommate, who knew how to leyn herself after four years of sharing a suite) has inevitably asked me, at some point or another, "Why do you do that? Why spend so much time going over the same thing again and again? What's the point?" And yet for me, I cannot imagine a life without reading Torah. If not for leyning, as I see it, what would be the point?

Reading Torah, for one thing, is a way of structuring my life so that I am always attuned to the rhythm of the Torah reading cycle, in the same way that davening keeps us attuned to the cycle of light and darkness. V'higita bo yomam valayla, Joshua charges the people (Joshua 1:8) – you should recite Torah day and night. When I practice a little bit of Torah reading each day, I ensure that the words of Torah are always running through my mind. As a result, I find myself quoting verses that suddenly become relevant in other contexts, making jokes that invoke the parsha, and even occasionally choosing what I will eat on Shabbat based on which foods are mentioned in the coming week's reading. This, for me, is the true way of following Rav Ami's interpretation of Proverbs 22:18, which states that words of Torah should be "in your belly, that they be set together on your lips." Explains Rav Ami, "When do you preserve words of Torah in your belly? Whey they are set together constantly on your lips (Eruvin 54a).

I do believe that it is by leyning that Torah is best remembered. Only when you learn Torah along with the cantillations do you ensure that you never accidentally omit a word or change around vowels or stresses when reading. No one who has leyned the first aliyah of Trumah would ever say "v'aSU li mikdash" (or at least I should hope not). By setting Torah to music, Torah develops a rhythm and a life-force of its own, infused with human breath. The words come to life off the page, as if the letters of the scroll have suddenly arisen from their fixed places and begun to dance, gaily waving their crowns. This is how I feel sometimes when I am leyning an aliyah that I have truly mastered. (Note: This happens very rarely; I am no grandmaster, though I am related to a few of them!) I feel like I am not leyning the Torah, but that the Torah is leyning me, carrying me aloft on its eagle wings. I think of this as a "leyner's high," similar to a "runner's high." After a few verses of leyning an aliyah well, I begin to feel like I am flying, carried forwards by the words that are singing out from me in full-throated ease. (Aye, Keats. It was the nightingale, and not the eagle!)

Leyning Torah is also a hobby that fits quite well into my life. I learn not from a Tikun but from xeroxes. These xeroxes are mostly courtesy of Random House, where my like-mindedly frum colleague and I used to share a Tikun Simanim, stored on the shelf between our cubicles. Each week we’d go together to the xerox machine and photocopy our respective aliyot. There was no Genizah, so I saved all of those pages. I went on to bring them with me to Israel, where a very organized friend encouraged me to sort them into color-coded vinyl sleeves by parsha, arranged in two great looseleaf binders. Each week I pick out the pages for that particular parsha and carry them with me wherever I go. Since I tend to live like a turtle, carrying much of my life in the heavy L.L. Bean backpack that I have owned since high school, I’m grateful not to have to shoulder the extra weight. In addition, I’ve discovered that xeroxed leyning is the perfect reading material to bring to a party, where entering with a book may be taboo. But who would notice a couple of folded sheets of paper in my back pocket? And who would notice if I slip off to the corner for a few minutes to practice, reveling in whatever it is I am leyning?

Of course, there are aliyot that I enjoy more than others. I have my favorites, and generally they are other people's favorites as well, which results in a fair amount of alpha-male style competition. The most desirable aliyot are generally the narratives with the most intense dramas: the temptation in the garden, the binding of Isaac, the rape of Dina, the seduction of Judah, the revelation of Joseph, the night of the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, the golden calf. Would that I could leyn them all!

Around this time of year, when we are deep into the wilderness of Mishkan building instructions, the competition dies down. And yet I have to confess that I, for one, love leyning the vast tracts of Mishkan material, and try to take on as much as possible! Leyning an aliyah from Vayakhel-Pekudei, as I see it, is a bit like reciting the Avoda service on Yom Kippur – the recitation becomes a reenactment. In her mind-boggling article "The Yom Kippur Avoda within the Female Enclosure," Bonna Devora Haberman argues that this part of the high holiday liturgy, the prayer leader becomes symbolically identified with the high priest in the Holy of Holies:

"The prayer leader does not lay her hands on a bull, a ram, or goats; she does not sprinkle blood; she does not enter the Holy of Holies. Indeed, she does not displace her two parallel touching stocking feet even when fully prostrating herself on the ground as part of the Avoda. She is absorbed in a standing prayer as the representative of the community. Recounting the acts with the intentionality of prayer substitutes for performing them. The Avoda is a symbolic representation of the service performed first in the desert Tabernacle, then in the holy Temple in Jerusalem through a gesticulated, cantillated community prayer experience."

Just as the prayer leader on Yom Kippur symbolically reenacts the rituals performed by the high priest in the Temple, so too does the Torah reader of the Mishkan parshiyot symbolically reenact the building of the this structure. This is why the leyning of the Mishkan, more so than any other section in the Torah, must be absolutely flawless. After all, the Mishkan is described in the most specific of dimensional detail, dictated from God on high: "And on the front side, to the east, fifty cubits: fifteen cubits of hangings on the one flank, with their three posts and their three sockets, and fifteen cubits of hangings on the other flank--on each side of the gate of the enclosure--with their three posts and their three sockets" (Exodus 38: 13-15). To recite these verses is to construct in words the Mishkan that the Isrealites built in the desert, much as Coleridge's speaker sought to recreate in measured language the pleasure dome of Kubla Khan:

With music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

Beware – because words construct verbal edifices. Torah is the blueprint God used in creating the world, as we learn in Breishit Rabbah, and so the way we read Torah determines the way we construct the world. If we mispronounce even one syllable of Vayakhel-Pekudei, if we read, say, forty cubits instead of fifty, then the entire edifice could come tumbling down. (Or at least so I tell myself, as I practice this week's leyning.) And furthermore: If Rabbi Akiva could find meaning to every "Et" in the Torah, must we not be sure to pronounce each one properly? Think of how many drashot hang on every word (if not every letter; if not every tip of the yud) in the Torah. We who leyn are playing with fire, much like Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua in the house of Elisha's father -- for were not the words of Torah given in fire on Sinai? (Tosafot to B. Chagigah 15a).

Reading Torah, I am arguing, is a weighty responsibility; but it is also a great source of pleasure. Each time I leyn, I discover new puzzles in the text: I muse on why a particular syllable is stressed, or why a concept seems to repeat itself. These questions inform my writing and thinking all week, and carry me into Shabbat. Most weeks, the very last thing I do before Shabbat is swim. Generally I am down to the wire, and I only have about twenty minutes in the pool. But just before I dive in, I go over my leyning once more, so that I will be immersed in words of Torah as I cut through the water. One Friday afternoon a few months ago, I found myself dreaming of a pool that would enable me to practice my leyning while swimming. In such a pool, I envisioned, there would be seven lanes (leyns?), one corresponding to each aliyah. A series of overhead projectors would flash the words of each aliyah onto the bottom pool surface of each lane, so that the swimmer could follow along as she made her way face-down through the water. Now there's an invention to rival the pleasure domes of Kubla Khan, and the hanging curtains of the Mishkan!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Here Lives a Happy Family

With colorful strokes of Crayola
Depicting six stick figures holding hands
Across a white sheet of paper,
The family below her has hung
On their door this sign:
"Here Lives a Happy Family"

Each evening Clara climbs the stairs
On her return from teaching school
(teaching students the age of one of
Those stick figures, she figures)
Up up up the stairs, tired from the day
Panting with the weight of
Books and papers and the groceries
She's picked up on her way
(one onion, two apples, a bag of pasta,
a quart of milk). Up up up
Passing, each evening, their sign:
"Here Lives a Happy Family."

Clara's door is just a door. No signs.
Her mother has told her "Women who live alone
Should not announce it to the world!
You have to be careful." Clara does not need
A sign, anyway – no one comes to visit,
And she herself knows well which door is hers:
The apartment one flight up from
"Here Lives a Happy Family."

Clara hears the rhythms of their life
Through the floorboards. The mother
Wakes first, heats the whistling teapot.
She rouses her children one by one, each time
A little louder: "henry Henry HENRY
You must get up Get Up GET UP"
(Clara wakes each day with Henry.)
Then the father leaves. He shuts the door
Behind him: "Bye kids!" –BANG.
It is not hard for him to go; he knows
He will return twelve hours later, he
Will find them just the same,
Clamoring over the table behind
The happy-holding crayoned hands:
"Here Lives a Happy Family."

Clara laces up her boots,
Swings a bag over her shoulder
Bites into an apple (breakfast), locks her door,
And sets off down the stairs at half past six.
She tries to dart past, tries to look away, but still--
She always glances, always turns around
As if she has forgotten something, dropped
Something behind her – or ahead:
Here Lives a Happy Family.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Sexy Widow (Ketubot 65a), my costume this Purim

My translation from Ruth Calderon's Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

Long-limbed Choma crossed the entrance hall of the courthouse with purposeful strides. Her thick mass of black hair stubbornly peeked out of her kerchief to see what was going on in the world. Even now, when dressed in black mourning clothes, she was enveloped in the same loveliness -- as simple as fresh baked bread and just as appealing. It was impossible to mistake her gait for anyone else's. The walls swayed like young lambs to the rhythm of her heels.

That morning the courtroom was empty. It was the height of summer, and even market day did not bring anyone to plead their case in court. Peddlers did not even bother to tip their scales before the handful of buyers who made their way through the humid heat. Lead weights carved in the shape of ducks, each one a bit larger than the next, sat still like a family of birds who had fallen asleep, their beaks tucked into their gray metal backs.

The gaming stands, which were usually noisy and crowded, were deserted. The game boards and the mosaic tiles lay at rest. The pigeon racers scattered seeds to their pigeons, who pecked aimlessly at the emptiness. No one showed up to gamble.

On a day like this, the courtroom effectively became a study house. Rava reviewed his learning on his own. If only he could learn with Abayey, his study partner, they would be able to knock off a difficult section of the Gemara from Tiberias. Rava felt Abayey's absence like a phantom limb that continued to ache. Without Abayey, he grew more distant from the world. He missed his friend's learnedness, the way he always looked at everything through a different lens. Rava reviewed the passage on "presumed despair," part of the laws about returning lost objects to their rightful owners. He tried to recall Abayey's voice, his manner of speaking, his gait.

The beadle who was nodding off by the doorway almost did not notice Choma when she entered. The beadle roused suddenly and announced: "Next case: The provision of alimony to Choma, the widow of Abayey."

It was difficult for Rava to hear the name of his beloved friend spoken aloud. He smiled as he remembered how Abayey used to juggle eight eggs, throwing one into the air and catching another, without any of the fragile shells touching one another. How when they used to walk through the market, Abayey would shake hands with even those elders who were not Jewish. Rava sat in the judge's seat at the front of the courtroom and recited his oath of justice. The responsibility of presiding in court weighed heavily on him. He had chosen this life in spite of the wishes of his wife, who had wanted him to go into business. She wanted wealth and he came home with empty pockets, hoping only to return in the evening as he had left in the morning: free from sin or error. He wondered to himself whether it was in fact an exaggeration to compare the fear instilled in the heart of the judge to the fear of death. Was it really as intense?

While he was still mulling it over, Choma was sitting silently, her hands folded in her lap. Rava did not know how to address her after the beadle had retired to the side room to eat, when they were left alone in the courtroom. "Rule on the alimony due to me," the woman said. Rava knew that it was his duty to rule on the amount of money that the widow would receive from her husband's heirs, an amount that would ensure that she could maintain the same standard of living as she had when her husband was alive. He ruled accordingly. "Rule on an additional sum due to me for wine." For wine? He and Rava never drank wine when they were together. He grew suspicious, and looked at Choma intently. He used his friend's nickname in an attempt to show the grounds for his claim: "I know Nachmani. He wasn't a wine drinker…. You're telling me that he would serve it to you?" Choma stood up. The dark fabric of her dress glided down the curves of her body and stopped at her ankles, swaying slightly. When she stood upright before him, she was taller than he remembered her. The thread of justice hung taut between them.

The woman paraded over to the judge's bench, keeping her eyes fixed squarely upon him. He looked at her dark lips and heard her voice, low and slightly hoarse: "I swear, my lord, he used to serve me wine in a goblet this big." As she spoke, she flung her hand above her in a deliberate motion, and the sleeve of her black dress bunched at her shoulder and revealed her arm all the way up to her elbow. For a split second, the smooth whiteness of her arm was bared. Splendor enveloped the courtroom. Rava looked at Choma. The whole world faded into a blurry background, and the arm glowed. The woman and her light attracted him with a force that was beyond his control. Somehow he managed to turn from his seat and escape from the courtroom as if chased by a demon. As he fled he muttered something unintelligible about how he was unfit to serve as a judge and about the wine that she would either receive or not. From the entrance he turned back to look at her – a dark and erect figure, her kerchief pulled back and her hair exposed, enveloped in a great light.

When he came to his home he found his wife, the daughter of Rav Chisda, seated beside the stove. Rava stood behind her, and although it was not his usual way, he grabbed her and carried her off to bed. He seemed like a total stranger when, without saying a word, he took off his clothes, peeled back her garments, and ravished his wife. When he later lifted himself up and dragged himself to his room, she was arranging her dress, blushing like a young girl. There was one moment of serenity in the house. Then suddenly a shadow passed over his wife's brow and she asked: "Who was in the courtroom just now?" He could not bring himself to lie to her. "Choma, the wife of Abayey."

His wife's face lost its softness. Rejecting the hand he offered, she ripped the lock off the bureau and left the house in a frenzy. The door to the courtyard slammed behind her.

Rava did not move from where he stood. He did not see how his wife chased Choma to the outskirts of Machoza, and he did not hear how she screamed, "You killed three husbands and now you've come to kill mine too!"

This story is based on a sugya from Ketubot 65a, translated here:

Choma, the wife of Abayey, came before Rava.
She said to him: "Rule on the food due to me in alimony." So he did.
[She said:] "Rule on the wine due to me."
He said to her: "I know Nachmani" (a nickname for Abayey), "He wouldn't serve you wine."
She said to him: "I swear, my lord, he used to serve me wine in a goblet this big."
When she demonstrated what she meant by lifting her arm, her arm became exposed.
And a great light fell upon the courtroom.
Rava stood up and went home
He demanded sex from his wife, the daughter of Rav Chisda.
The daughter of Rav Chisda said to him: "Who was in the courtroom today?"
He said to her: "Choma, the wife of Abayey."
She [Rava's wife] went after her [Choma] and beat her with the lock of a chest until she was driven out of Machoza.
She [Rava's wife] said to her [Choma]: "You killed three men, and now you've come to kill another?"

Sunday, March 08, 2009

So Remembering Him: The Paradox and Paradigm of Amalek

This week is Shabbat Zachor, one of the special shabbatot preceding Pesach. In the Maftir aliyah, we read Moshe’s account of Amalek’s cowardly attack on Israel: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary….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!” (Deuteronomy 25: 17-19)

This commandment seems to contain two contradictory injunctions. On the one hand, we are told “remember” and “do not forget.” On the other hand, we are instructed to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” which suggests that we should forget Amalek entirely, leaving not even a mental trace. Were we to successfully fulfill the second injunction, the first injunction would make no sense: How can we remember what has already been blotted out?

The message of Shabbat Zachor seems to be a dual one, Zachor v’Tishkach b’dibur echad. We have to simultaneously remember and forget Amalek, suggesting that remembering and forgetting are equally important acts. Yet this is surprising. We often hear about the Jewish imperative to remember: Remember the Sabbath day, remember the exodus, remember that you were a stranger in a strange land…. But since when is forgetting a positive value?

I was thinking about this question recently when studying Kohelet Rabbah, a midrashic collection that examines many of the themes in the book of Ecclesiastes, including vanity, the futility of human pursuits, and the absence of lasting value in a world of transience. The speaker in this book, Kohelet king of Jerusalem, describes his attempt “to study and probe with wisdom all that happens under the sun.” The rabbis in the midrash identify Kohelet with King Solomon and assume that this verse refers to Solomon’s quest to study all the Torah there is to learn. And yet Solomon finds that learning Torah does not just consist of remembering what he has learned, but of forgetting it as well. In commenting on Kohelet 2:12, “My thoughts also turned to appraising wisdom,” the rabbis state, “Do not read this as "turned (paniti)," but rather "emptied (piniti). I emptied myself like a vessel that is alternately filled and then emptied. So too did Shlomo alternatively learn Torah and then forget it” (KR 2:12).

This seems to be another instance of the futility that is so rampant in this book, but in fact, as the midrash shows, quite the opposite is true: “The rabbis of Babylonia would say in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak: It is for man's own good that he learns Torah and forgets it, because if a person were to learn Torah and never forget it, he would study Torah for two or three years and then go back to hi s work, and he would never invest his whole life in Torah. However, since a person learns Torah and forgets it, he never desists or retreats from the study of Torah” (KR 1:13). The midrash suggests that there is an inherent value in forgetting what we have learned, because this enables us to spend our lives learning. If so, then the ideal student is not the plastered well that never loses a drop, but rather the ever-flowing fountain from which water evaporates and then returns to its source.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Kohelet Rabbah depicts learning and forgetting as bound up with one another, because indeed this is very much how our brains work. We do not remember everything our minds assimilate, nor would we want to. So much of what we notice in the world or absorb about our surrounding is irrelevant to us in the long term--the weather forecast for a particular morning, the price of eggs in the market in a town we once lived, the name of every student in a class we once taught--and we are lucky that we are able to shed it with such abandon. Were we never to forget a thing, our brains would become so cluttered with useless information that it would be difficult to retrieve information that is still of value. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges captures this notion in his short story “Funes the Memorious,” which tells of a man who falls off a horse and experiences a form of reverse amnesia, such that he cannot forget anything at all:

“When he fell, he'd been knocked unconscious; when he came to again, the present was so rich, so clear, that it was almost unbearable, as were his oldest and even his most trivial memories….Now his perception and his memory were perfect…. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the features of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho…. Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree in every patch of forest, but every time he had perceived or imagined that leaf….He was the solitary, lucid spectator of a multiform, momentous, and almost unbearably precise world….He had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars.”

Funes is the sponge who absorbs everything but is unable to filter. His memory is so overwhelmingly vast that it cripples him. If only he could forget some of what he knew, he might be able to lead a normal life. Nietzsche captures the problematic nature of a person who lacks the capacity to forget: “It is possible to live almost without memory, indeed to live happily, as the animals show us, but without forgetting it is utterly impossible to live at all.” This statement is true not just on the intellectual level, but on the emotional level as well. All of us go through moments in life that cause us pain and distress. Were we always to re-experience those moments with the same immediacy, they would prevent us from ever being able to move on. Instead, with time, our memories begin to fade, and new experiences are superimposed such that the traumatic events of the past become woven, we hope, into the larger fabric of our lives. “Time cures all ills,” we are commonly told, though the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millet calls this cliché into question in one of her sonnets:

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide.

Millet’s outburst becomes, in the second half of the poem, a musing about the paradoxical relationship between memory and forgetting:

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, – so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

In an effort to forget her lover, the poet seeks out a place that bears no trace of his memory – a place where he is utterly blotted out from under the heavens. When she finally finds such a place, her instinctive reaction is to point out that indeed, in that place, “There is no memory of him here!” And thus the very absence of any trace brings back a torrent of memories.

Perhaps this is the same paradox of memory and forgetting that we find in Parshat Zachor. We must blot out any memory of Amalek, but in so doing, we must be acutely conscious of what it is that we are blotting out. In the holiday of Purim, which we will celebrate this coming week, we are commanded to drown out the name of Haman, who is considered a descendant of Amalek, by sounding noisy groggers whenever Haman’s name is read in the Megillah. Paradoxically, however, we are not allowed to drown out Haman’s name completely. If the sound of the groggers renders Haman’s name inaudible, the reader of the Megillah is halachically obligated to repeat the name of Haman so that everyone can hear it. Judaism is not a religion of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Mentioneds.” We speak out Voldemort’s name loud and clear, and only then do we say Yimach Shmo. Before we erase, we must record; before we drown out, we must make sure we hear.

I hope that as we move on from Parshat Zachor to Purim, we will become better equipped to strike the appropriate balance between memory and forgetting. May our lives always be rich with learning, with the ability to create meaning from our experiences, and with the healing that enables us to move on.

Changing Room

Amidst the disarray of lingerie,
Head slumped against a corner
I peer into my eyes red red
From weeping for what can change, and what can’t.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Is anyone really privy
To Victoria’s secret?