the wayward and defiant son

if you have a wayward and defiant son who
does not heed or obey
take hold of him and bring him out to the
town elders and say to them
our son is disloyal and disobedient
thereupon they will tear down your darkest
desires your illusions of power your
desperate fantasy of control
thus will you sweep out the fears you’ve
wielded like weapons against
your child before he
was ever even

(Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Amalek and 9/11: Remember to Forget!

From this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei:

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 25:19)

Now this is odd: in this commandment regarding the Israelites’ arch-enemy, the Amalekites, the Torah commands us to never “forget” to “blot out their memory.”  What could it possibly mean to “remember to forget” your enemies?

While this imperative might at first seem confusing or contradictory, I’ve come to believe it offers us a profound insight into the spiritual effects of remembrance in the wake of trauma.

I often use the psychological model of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as an example. As is well known, one the primary symptoms of PTSD is the persistent, painful reliving of a past trauma. In one form of PTSD therapy, known as “exposure therapy,” the patient regularly discusses the trauma with the therapist in a therapeutically controlled environment:

In exposure therapy your goal is to have less fear about your memories. It is based on the idea that people learn to fear thoughts, feelings, and situations that remind them of a past traumatic event.

By talking about your trauma repeatedly with a therapist, you’ll learn to get control of your thoughts and feelings about the trauma. You’ll learn that you do not have to be afraid of your memories. This may be hard at first. It might seem strange to think about stressful things on purpose. But you’ll feel less overwhelmed over time. (From the National Center for PTSD)

As I read this description, it occurs to me that our regular reading and discussion of the Amalekites’ attack represents a kind of “spiritual exposure therapy.”  I strongly believe that the goal of this regular remembrance is not to wallow in our victimization or to fire up feelings of revenge, but precisely the opposite: by telling the story, we seek to “blot out” or liberate ourselves from the painful, crippling impact of these memories. In a sense, this commandment bids us to eradicate the aspects of our collective traumatic past that ultimately serve to keep us enslaved and imprisoned.

In the end, the ritual re-telling of these stories is not only the key to our healing but to the healing of the world itself. In their most exalted form, the acts of listening, learning and remembering are important steps toward developing empathy for other individuals and cultures.

I’m particularly mindful of this teaching as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches. Here are the questions I’ll be asking this weekend: How will we choose to remember this collective trauma?  Will our remembrance only serve to allow our fear, anger and pain to rule over us? Or will it lead us toward a path of healing, empathy and a more hopeful future for our world?