Thursday, March 30, 2006


The Steps of Moses
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
In 1997 I visited the Schocken Institute in Jerusalem and held an ancient manuscript in my hand. It was a Siddur from the fifteenth century. The quality of the manuscript was excellent. I managed to read the Kriat Shema and the blessings, the Amidah and nearly all the parts of the prayers except for one page which was black and looked burnt. I asked Prof. Shmuel Glick, who heads the Institute, to explain why it was so. He told us that the black page contained the Havdalah prayers. The Jews who had used it had held the candle above the page and the hot wax had ruined it.

Even inadvertently we leave traces in our books. We can hold the Pesach Haggada, smell it, and remember last year's menu. Who has not seen Grandmother's soup stains in a Haggada? Traces of our experiences remain on the page.

If we pick up any siddur, we can tell which pages were opened most during the years. There will be a yellowish tinge and some pages will be more noticeable than others.

Also in our portion, VaYikra, there is a similar phenomenon. As soon as we begin, in the first word of the portion, we will notice a small letter Aleph in the word VaYikra. That small aleph is a sign that Moshe, too, left his mark on the Torah.

Why do I tell you this?

The Torah tells us that when Moshe descended from Mount Sinai to give the Torah to the people of Israel, his face shone and he radiated light.


When he reached the beginning of the third book and heard the word VaYikra from G-d, he was not so enthusiastic. Baal Haturim says that Moshe did not want to write the word VaYikra but rather the word VaYikar, as in the matter of Balaam, as though it was only a chance occurrence that God appeared to him. In the end the Lord and Moshe reached a compromise and Moshe wrote a small Aleph. He transferred the ink that remained in his pen to his head and from that he received the radiance.

And why did Moshe feel discomfort towards the letter aleph? Because aleph is the first letter of the word ani, meaning "I"; that is, the ego. Modest Moshe decided to minimize the aleph. He saw himself as small and humble, not as great and important.

Those are the steps of Moshe left on the Torah. That small Aleph is the signature of the prophet.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Tetzave - Zachor

Brain Gym

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way at your coming forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not G-d. And it shall not come to pass, when the Lord thy G-d giveth thee rest from all thy enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy G-d giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the rememberance of Amalek from under the heavens; thou shalt not forget. (Deuteronomy 25, 17-19)

There seems to be an internal contradiction within the portion "Amalek" in Sefer Devarim. On the one hand we are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek under heaven. On the other, we are ordered to remember what he did on our way out of Egypt. If we erase, how can we remember? If we remember, how can we have erased?

In any event, we know that two completely different commandments are contained in the same portion. The first is the eradication of the memory of Amalek under heaven, meaning the physical eradication of any remaining descendants of that nation. The second is the memory itself, that mitzvah carried out every year upon reading this weekly Sabbath portion "Zachor".

But, in any case, the first mitzvah has long been described as one which we are unable to fulfill in our time. Aside from the ethical issue involved in this mitzvah due to the demand to destroy an entire nation, the Mishnah testifies in Masechet Yadayim that there is no possibility at all of identifying Amalek and therefore no way of destroying him ("King Sancheriv of Ashur rose up and confused all the nations").

So how can we fulfill this mitzvah today? We cannot.

Still, there are customs connected to this mitzvah in various ways. When I was studying a course for Torah Scribes in Jerusalem ten years ago, and we reached the lesson on erasing, the teacher wrote the word "Amalek" on a piece of parchment and taught us how to erase on it. He claimed that he, too, had learnt the secrets of erasing in this same way. The custom of using rattles when saying the word "Haman" while reading the Megilla on Purim is also connected in some way to the same Mitzvah of wiping out the memory of Amalek. We know that, according to Sefer HaManhig (Provence, the 12th century) that children in France and Provence used to write the word "Haman" (one of Amalek's descendants) on pebbles and knock them together while reading his name in the Megilla in order to drown it out. Also, the expression "Ymach Shemo VeZichro" (May his name and his memory be erased) recited after recalling the names of Israel's enemies originates in the same mitzvah.

However, on this Shabbat, the emphasis is on remembering and not erasing.

The word "Zachor" (Remember) is so central in Jewish tradition that we have a deeply meaningful custom which causes us to exercise the power of remembrance after every morning's prayers. Every person in Israel should recite these six remembrances every day while reading the appropriate portions of the Torah : The remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, the remembrance of the revelation on Mount Sinai, the attack of Amalek and the command to erase his memory, the remembrance of what our Fathers to G-d in the desert, the punishment of Miriam for slandering Moses, and the remembrance of the Sabbath

Why is this so important? Why does the word "Zachor" (Remember) appear so many times in the Torah? Why do we have so many mitzvot connected to memory?

Simply because the brain is like any other muscle in our body which must be exercised in order to preserve it. All of these mitzvot serve as "Brain Gym" which develops our memories. Cars need fuel to enable them to be driven. Plants need water to grow. Electronic instruments need electricity to function…And nations need the power of memory in order to survive.

This Shabbat is one of "Brain Gym".