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Remember what Amalek did to you - Shabbat Zachor and Purim

Author: Esther Ehrman, Adar 2 5765/March 2005

Once every year, Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, every Jew is commanded to hear the passage in Deut.25,v.17 ff:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went from Egypt; how he fell upon you and massacred your stragglers, all those who trailed after you when you were faint and spent and he did not fear G-d. Therefore, when the Lord your G-d shall give your rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget.

What is so important about this particular attack? What is it that we need to remember? Why add 'do not forget'? What should we blot out? And if we blot it out, how can we remember it?

First, what was it that Amalek did? To understand this, we need to look back to the episode in Exodus to which the above passage is referring. The Children of Israel had just come out from Egypt; they had lived through the miracles of the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea. They had been given food from heaven, the Manna, and now they complained that there was no water. They were in the desert. Once again, they complained and once again the Almighty satisfies their needs. He tells Moses to come to Horeb and strike the rock to bring out water.

Ex.17, v. 7 ff:

He [Moses] called the name of the place Massa uMeriba [testing and quarrelling] because of the quarrelling of the children of Israel and because they had put G-d to the test, saying is G-d in our midst or not? And then came Amalek and fought with Israel in Refidim'.

There follows the battle where Moses needs to keep his hands raised. When they are raised, the Israelites win, when the hands are down, the Amalekites are on top. By propping up Moses' hands, the Israelites defeat Amalek. The episode is clearly symbolic. G-d could have given the Israelites victory as He had just given them the Manna. It mattered that they did the fighting and that they kept their eyes raised, watching Moses' hands held up to heaven.

V.14 ff:

And G-d said to Moses: Write this as a memorial in the Book and put it also into the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens. And Moses built an altar and called it Adonai Nisi [G-d is my banner; literally, 'my miracle'] and said : because the hand is at the throne of G-d (ki yad al kes ya), the war of G-d is against Amalek from generation to generation'.

In this passage we learn that it is the Lord who will fight against Amalek in every generation, because 'yad al kes ya', the hand - of Amalek – is at the throne (kes, incomplete form of 'kise') 'ya' (half of the letters of G-d's name). Rashi explains that the Lord will wage war until His throne and His Name are complete and no longer under attack from the presumptuous Amalek who dares to reach up to it.

Let us go back to the question of the wrongdoing of Amalek. He attacked the weak and the stragglers. The Israelites were thirsty. Their camp was in Refidim. G-d tells Moses to come to Horeb to strike the rock that will give them water. They rush to get there and those who are too weak to rush form a vulnerable rear. Amalek, who 'does not fear G-d', defies the Almighty, though he has surely heard about the miracles in Egypt and in the desert, and attacks the weak. Attacking those who are weak is denounced again and again in the Torah ('I will hear their cry' we are told in Ex. ). And defying G-d, aiming at the throne itself, as it were, means an everlasting war. Why is Amalek not eliminated at once? Amalek needs to live to be a witness. But what he stands for has to be blotted out.

The Israelites were physically weak, we are told. But there is more to it. They had no water and water, the Midrash often tells us, symbolises Torah - ein mayim ela Torah. We know that this is so here because we find them asking 'Is G-d in our midst or not?' This doubt immediately allows Amalek and what he stands for to attack. Our doubts remove the divine protection. Just as in the battle when Moses' hands are down.

We must not forget to blot out the evil of Amalek. If we forget about Amalek, we shall forget to blot it out. And we must also remember (zachor). 'Zachor', remember or recall, is a frequent injunction in the Torah, famously so in 'zachor et haShabbat'. We fulfil this commandment by saying, reciting the Kiddush on Shabbat. We recall it by saying it out loud, which is important (We say to our children: Are you sorry for what you did wrong? Say it.).

We have now understood the threefold injunction that we read on this special Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor. We recall the evil and the defiance of Amalek. We undertake to blot it out, never to behave as did the Amalekite and we undertake not to forget, to take it to heart, to be vigilant and not to allow Amalekite evil to threaten Judaism.

In many places, the custom, on Purim, is to write the name of Haman on the shoes we wear and, literally, wipe it out during the reading of the Megilla by stamping our feet at the mention of Haman, the Agagite, a fit descendant of Amalek. But Haman's hatred of the Jews sets a new pattern. The Jews exiled in Persia experienced the hatred of anti-Semitism that was to cause their persecution in so many lands of the diaspora, the pogroms in Russia, the holocaust...An irrational hatred that invented specious justifications: blood libels, accusations that the Jews planned to take over the world (Protocols of the Elders of Zion), or that they spread Aids throughout Arab lands. There is no common ideology behind these persecutions. As minorities in the lands of the diaspora, the Jews did not have the wherewithal even to defend themselves against such hate driven persecutions.

The question arises, whether the State of Israel presents a new situation. The evil of Amalek and the hatred of Haman have not gone away. Can Israel now 'blot out' that evil and that hatred? Clearly not without help. We still need the threefold injunction of Shabbat Zachor. Perhaps, once again, it is a battle that can only be won if our eyes are kept on the hands of Moses, raised up to the Almighty.