Parashat Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
II Adar 12, 5771/March 17, 2011
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt. That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear G-d. And it shall come to pass, when the L-rd your G-d has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the L-rd your G-d is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
How could we possibly forget Amalek? He seems to rear his ugly head every year, in every season. He strikes like a viper. And each time he strikes, our conscience cries out again. And how can we possibly obliterate his memory from under heaven? When Amalek first struck, as Israel was leaving Egypt, he was a single people, a tribe, finite in number. To confront the nation of Amalek, overcome him and eradicate him was a feat most daunting, yet still within the realm of the possible. Over the ensuing millennia the seed of Amalek has been scattered to the four winds, and like dragon teeth, nurtured by implacable hatred, springs up among the seventy nations. Every generation, indeed, every decade, knows its own Amalek. To take on Amalek seems at times, to take on the entire world.
If we examine carefully the verses commanding us to remember Amalek, we begin to get a handle on just what we are being instructed to remember, why we are to remember it, and how the very remembering itself, and the consciousness and attitude that remembering engenders, and the actions that remembering will precipitate, will ready and enable us to “obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens” in spite of all the odds.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt.” The intention is not to remember Amalek, per se, but what he did. The first thing to remember is that he did it to you. Not to your ancestor, or your neighbor, or someone who might have looked different or thought differently than you. He did it to you. Remember.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt.” He did it to you, while you were pursuing your G-d given destiny, not to settle into a nice cozy home, community, gainful employment and status in the wilderness, but on your way to the land of Israel, the land G-d chose for you, where you will have the ability to fulfill His commandments.
“That he encountered you on the way.” The Hebrew is karcha – “encountered you” – which is from the root word denoting happenstance. The venomous sense of happenstance and apathy, that life has no Divine purpose, that the road we are on has no destination, can be the result of Amalek’s unprovoked ambush, causing a dissolution of our faith in G-d, and a weakening of our resolve. But this sense of happenstance and apathy can also be that which precipitates Amalek’s savagery. Amalek has a killer’s instinct for spiritual weakness. The less certain we are of our purpose in life, the bolder Amalek becomes.
“And cut off those lagging to your rear.” The fact that there were those up front and those lagging behind, vulnerable to attack is evident of social division and a missing sense of mutual responsibility. This is an indictment of society. Amalek will always first attack those who have been neglected or abandoned. Then he will come after you. Just weeks out of Egypt, Israel had not yet reformulated itself into encampments. It had not yet created an army. It had not yet established the Tabernacle and the Divine service at the center, physically and spiritually, of its existence. Lacking these necessities, Israel was easy prey for Amalek.
“When you were tired and exhausted.” The great commentator Rashi suggest that the weariness was a result of thirst, as water was scarce in the desert. Water, the source of all life, is always understood by our sages to be a metaphor for Torah. The people’s exhaustion was a spiritual exhaustion, a wavering of faith, caused by a paucity of Torah knowledge.
“He did not fear G-d.” English translations tend to be charitable. The phrasing here in Hebrew is ambiguous. However, we know that Amalek doesn’t fear G-d. This accounts for his brazen crimes against G-d’s people. The deeper meaning of the verse is far more serious: “[Israel] did not fear G-d.” Israel that does not fear G-d is listless, rootless, impotent, a lightning rod attracting strike after strike of Amalek’s hatred.
The picture drawn by Torah of the spiritual state of Israel at this one particular moment is grim enough. It is as if Israel’s momentary loss of identity itself conjured up the deadly attack by Amalek. But from this we also learn that the secret to “obliterat[ing] the memory of Amalek from under the heavens” is for Israel to be unified in purpose, to care for one another, to immerse itself in Torah knowledge, to be certain of her destiny, and to fear G-d. Achieving this state of “remembering” is the key to eliminating Amalek, all the Amaleks, from this world.
We can take our lead from Mordechai and Esther, the heros of the scroll of Esther, which Jews will be reading around the world this coming Saturday night, Purim. Their people faced with imminent destruction at the hands of the evil Haman, their generation’s Amalek, Mordechai and Esther rallied the nation, filled them with faith in G-d and love for their fellow Jews. Their defeat of Haman and the decimation of his forces was the inevitable result. Moshe likewise rallied Israel in the desert, in their war against Amalek. By raising his hands to heaven, supported by his brother Aharon, and Hur, Moshe directed his people’s hearts to heaven, reminding them of their destiny, their covenant with G-d. Their spirits revived, Amalek was crushed.
We tend to understand memory as being a vague and weakened state of consciousness. Even the most important events in life are ultimately lost in the fog of time. Our memory is the last refuge, a sort of purgatory, before its last traces are lost forever. Torah understands memory not as an atrophied remnant of our consciousness, but as the source of our intellect. Before we are born we are granted a perfect understanding of Torah. Our lives are a quest to remember this knowledge and thereby grow closer to G-d. In this manner, our memory doesn’t weaken or fade, but daily grows stronger and deeper. This is what our three verse Torah reading of Zachor – remember – is telling us. By remembering, by pursuing our own personal potential and our collective destiny as a nation loved by G-d, we obliterate Amalek from under the heavens.
The third and final verse of Zachor, “And it shall come to pass, when the L-rd your G-d has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the L-rd your G-d is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens,” is strongly reminiscent of another verse found earlier in Deuteronomy:
“And you shall cross the Jordan and settle in the land the L-rd, your G-d, is giving you as an inheritance, and He will give you rest from all your enemies surrounding you, and you will dwell securely. And it will be, that the place the L-rd, your G-d, will choose in which to establish His Name there you shall bring all that I am commanding you: Your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and the choice of vows which you will vow to the L-rd.” (Deuteronomy 12:10-11)