Shabbat Zachor: Amalek, a metaphor for cruelty, victimisation of the weak and vulnerable, arrogance

On the Shabbat before Purim we have a special extra scroll reading, and the Shabbat is named not for the weekly torah reading, but for this reading – Zachor et asher assa lecha Amalek, baderech b’tzeitchem mimitzrayim. – Remember what Amalek did to you, on the journey, as you were leaving Egypt. This week is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembering.

amalek soferet

On the Shabbat before Purim we read a few verses from Deuteronomy: “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, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget” and this injunction fleshes out an earlier account in the book of Exodus where the Amalakites had come to fight with Israel, and Joshua had gone into battle, only winning when Moses’ hand were physically held up high by Hur and Aaron. At that time God told Moses to inscribe the story in a document and read it aloud to Joshua, that God would utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens, and the story ends with Moses saying “God will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages”

Who exactly is Amalek? Why is God at war for all times with Amalek and what can we understand from this story? What do we take from a command to us to effectively destroy an entire people – if this truly is the command we are given.

The Amalakites don’t seem to exist outside of biblical texts which give us very little context for them. They appear in several places in the bible right up to the book of Chronicles at the end of the book, and of course in the book of Esther Haman is said to be an Amalakite, a descendent through the Agagite tribe – hence the connection to Purim, but I think that a quasi historical understanding of the Amalakites is not especially helpful for us to understand the commandment to remember them so as to blot out their name.

Amalek seems to be not so much a people as a metaphor for cruelty, victimisation of the weak and vulnerable, arrogance. The original story tells of the group of people (Amalakites) who attack the weakest most vulnerable Israelites leaving Egypt – the ones who were at the back of the procession of ex slaves and others – and seems to speak of this attack as being entirely opportunist and without motive. Amalek hurts for the sheer pleasure of abusing power, aimlessly destroys the other for no reason or benefit. So the word becomes a synonym for everything we wish not to be, everything that religion strives to change – Amalek is the one who sees no humanity in the other, who isn’t connected as part of a shared community with the rest of the world, who rides roughshod and uncaringly over the needs and emotions of other people who are simply commodities or objects rather than reflections of the divine.

Amalek becomes the state into which we might all occasionally slide – the state of compassion fatigue, or the drive to make sure we are ok at the expense maybe of others, the closing of borders against the clamouring needy who wish to share the benefit of our world, the fundamentalist who cannot allow anyone to have a different way of seeing the world. Amalek is the one who chooses not to see a connection between us and the other, a connection which the religious person may call God; the non-religious will use other words to describe

The Amalek who is with us in every generation may not only be the traditional view of the oppressor who comes to destroy the Jewish people, it may be the inner workings of each human soul which might have the tendency to forget the humanity of others in pursuit of gratification of our own needs.

Shabbat Zachor is named after the extra torah reading about Amalek, with its imperative to remember Amalek so as to blot out Amalek, reminding us that in the coming week we will commemorate the story of Esther and read the Megillah for Purim. But as we cheer and boo, as we celebrate the gory end of those who tried to murder us, as we relieve ourselves of some of the stress of living a minority existence amongst people who resist and sometimes despise our particular difference, let’s spare a thought for the Amalek inside all of us, the characteristics of selfishness or conceit, of narrow mindedness or wilful ignorance of other’s pain. Our world contains violence and famine, slavery, hatred, refugees searching for safety, huge discrepancy between rich and poor, warfare and oppression. If that isn’t the presence of Amalek, to be thought about so that we try to change and work hard to remove it, then I don’t know what is.

Zachor: Amalek is our own human inclination to take from the world

“Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth out of Egypt; how he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”
-Deuteronomy 25:17- 19

 On the Shabbat before Purim we read an extra portion from another scroll, and the Shabbat takes its name from this reading – Zachor! Remember!  Liturgically this is to remind us that Purim will be celebrated in the coming week, and a genealogical link is made in tradition between the villain of the Purim story, Haman the Agagite and the people known in bible as Amalekites.

 The Amalekites, like Haman, are understood in Jewish tradition to be those people who hate without reason or cause; Bible records them as descendants of Esau, though it is hard to understand either their location or their individuality. Both “Amalek” and “Amalekites” seem to be used to describe a people who are outside the mainstream, people who are on the fringes and who threaten the core. The words come to symbolise meaningless, purposeless evil – an opposite of all that faith in God might bring, and of course in our passage we are told that Amalek did what they did because “they did not fear God”. Because of this, they attacked the vulnerable and weakest of the Israelite society, itself a raggle taggle of ex slaves with little strength to keep going. This was not a group who threatened Amalekite society – the Israelites were attacked simply because it was unlikely they would be able to defend themselves.

 Over the years “Amalek” has come to be a symbol of the other, or the enemy. Our tradition has seen all anti-semitic activity as the manifestation of Amalek, and some have gone further – to see any person or people who challenge Judaism or Israel as descendants of Amalek. The terrible killings perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 where 29 Palestinians were murdered in Hevron and many more injured, came out of extreme and misplaced belief that they were the enemy and therefore they must be Amalek. But Amalek is much more complicated than a way we might use to designate those we think of as “Other”.

 Amalek is more profoundly found not outside ourselves, but inside us, at our own core.  The gematria for Amalek is the same as that for ‘safek’ – doubt, a way of saying that the anti-divine that Amalek represents is something within us, something that we might manifest if we allow ourselves to do so.  While the etymology of the word Amalek is uncertain, it may come from two words – Am Lakak, the people who lick up – the people who selfishly take from all around without any sense of boundary or of compassion for others. Amalek is the trait that takes, that uses up, that does not consider either the other or the context or the future – it is the greed and selfishness we are all prone to as young children, something we have to learn to rein in and control if we are to live with others and create relationships and do good in this world.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, (1808 – 1888) and said to be the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, saw the battle between Israel and Amalek in this way. For him the war is between different sets of values – and Israel should strive to be in the category of morality and life affirming activity. In his commentary on Amalek he wrote “We are warned, remember what Amalek did to you, and see to it that we ourselves should not become an Amalek within ourselves. …not to commit deeds of wrong and violence within our personal lives…. Do not forget” this [obligation to wipe out Amalek] – in case there comes a time when you will want to be like Amalek, and like him to deny your [moral] obligation and not to know God, but will only seek opportunities…to exploit your power to harm others.”  

Amalek is not only “the enemy” or “the other” or a symbol of external evil against which we must always be on guard. Amalek is our own human inclination to take from the world, and in taking to stop others from having what they need – overriding their vulnerability simply because we can. Our world is full of such behaviours and we have a responsibility to bring them to mind in order to address them. Be it the anxieties over the fate of the vulnerable in our health and social care systems, or the abilities of large organisations to fix opaque and impossible price structures that penalise the unwary or the ignorant or the cash or time-poor; be it the fate of people at the hands of corrupt leaderships or the use of the labour of children or wage slaves to keep prices down, Amalek walks among us and within us. Before we can blot out such behaviour we must become aware and outraged. Remember what Amalek did… you shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”

Parashat Tetzaveh. Shabbat Zachor

 “And it will be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17)

            So we read on the Shabbat before Purim, the Shabbat when we remember the gratuitous hatred shown to the Children of Israel as they fled from Egypt, echoing the hatred shown by Haman, said to be descended from the Amalakites, and we remember too the gratuitous hatred shown to Jews ever since.

            It is a text which has come to be something of an emblem for Jews – the act of remembering, so sacred to our tradition, is to be used in this one case to blot out the individuals concerned, to erase their names from history.

            As Jews we fear only one thing – we fear disappearing entirely, so that no trace of us is found.  One thinks of Isaiah’s phrase, poignantly taken up by the holocaust remembrance centre in Israel – “I  will give in My house and within My walls a monument and a memorial (yad v’shem) better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off.  (56:5).  Yad v’shem – a hand and a name. 

            Almost everything we do as Jews is in some way about remembering, and what we remember can be linked to two grand themes – Creation and Exodus/Redemption.  All our festivals, whether agricultural in their origins or not, are linked to Creation and to Redemption – think of Pesach, Redemption of our people and Creation of peoplehood.  Shavuot, building on Pesach, brings us the meaning of our Redemption – Torah.  Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the cycle of time, a new start which may yet lead us to Redemption, Yom Kippur helps us leave behind and create again.  Succot is of course Creation led, with the underlying theme that our Redemption can come only from God, Simchat Torah neatly begins with the almost – Redemption of the Jewish people and focuses us again into the Creation story.  Chanukah and Purim, the two post biblical festivals are both about Redemption too, with the possibilities of starting again afresh.

            In our rich and complex Jewish tradition, we constantly and ritually remember the two experiences which mould us – the Creation which we experience newly every day, and the Redemption to which we are committed to work.  We remember where we come from and where we are going to.  That is our most sacred behaviour.  And so it is particularly shocking to be told to remember so as to be sure to erase all memory.

Such an instruction is a creative betrayal of that which we hold most sacred.  Nothing could be more designedly dumbfounding, more completely against our instincts.  Our whole imperative is to remember so as not to lose completely.

            Yet the special reading on Shabbat Zachor, designed to emphasise the response to Purim which will shortly follow, tells us that not everything or everyone should be remembered, that there are certain events the enormity of which means that they must be buried away forever.  They are beyond our capacity to deal with, beyond our ability to create anew or to bring to Redemption.  Few and far between – one thinks inevitably of the go’el who would not marry Ruth for the sake of his descendents, and who is named only Poloni ben Poloni – Mr X – in the text – these events where enforced erasing of the memory of a human being serve to point up the importance of conserving the memory.  Shabbat Zachor says it all – Shabbat Remember! 

            Nowadays we have so much to remember – and extra days have been added to our calendar with Yom ha Shoah, and Yom ha Atzma’ut, the depths and heights of the last century.  We are programmed to remember, to allow history to live again in us.  We just have to ask ourselves what we should be remembering, and how. 

            The text we read as part of Shabbat Zachor begins “And it will be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget”, places the enforced forgetting and erasing in a context – it begins with a future time “It will be”.  This reminds us of one very important lesson – we don’t have to worry yet about what we might erase or forget, that will be for the unspecified future.  Right now our task is to remember and to document and to keep alive, it is not, absolutely not, to do anything else.