In an age when anti-Semitism on and beyond campus in America and Europe is on the rise, and heightened lawfare efforts against Israel in the international arena occur even as existential threats against her loom large, it is hard not to be seduced by what might be a call to defense and security from the Torah.
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 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! (Deut. 25:17-19)
The Torah formulates the commandment both in positive and negative language; “Remember…do not forget!” Of course, there is a logical inconsistency in the command when we are told to eradicate the memory of our enemy only to memorialize and institutionalize the obligation on a perpetual basis. How can we make sense of it?
Perhaps we can understand this directive better through the illustration offered in the book of 1 Samuel. Ordered to kill King Agag of Amalek, King Saul ultimately could not bring himself to do it. It was one of the most human acts in his entire reign performed early on. It was also his undoing; it cost him the Divine favor for his rule and his line. Agag was understood by the rabbis to be the ancestor Haman the Agagite. In the rabbinic world-view, had Saul killed Agag, Haman never would have threatened our survival in Persia. (Then again, we wouldn’t have the Jewish Mardi Gras celebration we call Purim either.)
But also nearly buried in this ancient story about fit national leadership is an important element: Saul made it a point to going to the Kenites embedded with Amalek and offered them safe passage out of the war zone. He specifically cited the support the Kenites had given to the Israelites during the Wilderness journey after leaving Egypt. Even as Saul went after Israel’s mortal enemies, he remembered Israel’s enduring friends. There is something healthy in Saul’s model: it’s not exclusively about remembering those enemies who would hurt us; it’s also about remembering the friends who helped us. It’s a model not just for national leaders; it is a model for the entire Jewish people.
If the ancient rabbis insisted that the Amalekites will have their spiritual heirs, then we must presume that the Kenites do as well. I suggest we’ve seen them recently. The recent Copenhagen terror attacks were barely a week in our consciousness when local Muslims organized a ring of peace outside of the only synagogue in Oslo, Norway. They were committed to expressing an act of support and solidarity. Over a thousand people, Muslim and not, respond to the call and show up to express their rejection of anti-Semitism. Who wasn’t moved by this Scandinavian expression of the Israeli grassroots campaign Mesarvim l’hiyot oyvim (We Refuse to Be Enemies)?
The traditional Passover Hagadah quotes Jeremiah’s view of Israel’s enemies taken to its conclusion: “Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not know you” is the traditional text recited as the door is opened for Elijah the Prophet. Yet, some unknown Jew in medieval Worms, Germany was inspired to respond to the kindness he or she experienced at the hands of early Righteous Gentiles, In a wonderful act of balance, it is recorded next to the Pour Out They Wrath passage in a manuscript dated to 1521:
Pour out your love on the nations who have known you and on the sovereignties who call in Your name, on account of the loving-kindness they do for Jacob as they defend your people Israel from those who consume them. May they merit to see Your Choice Sukkah and to rejoice in the joy of Your Nations.
We remember Amalek. We remember the start of the Shoah with Kristallnacht, and we grapple with the enormity of our loss with Yom HaShoah U’Gevurah. Yet at no point have the Jewish people or the State of Israel formalized a day to recognize Hasdei Umot HaOlam, the Righteous of the Nations of the World.
I’d like to propose that the Friday leading into Shabbat Zachor is a perfect day to commemorate the bravery of non-Jews who have stood up with us against our enemies. Perhaps that’s the best resolution of the inconsistency in the Torah’s commandment. Yes, by all means let’s remember that we have dangerous enemies in the world. But let’s also remember that there are good people—some of faith, some of conscience, some of both—who have and are willing to stand up instead of just stand by when danger threatens. As we go to celebrate our survival at Purim and our redemption at Passover, we are well advised to simultaneously be thankful for the friends we have in the world. Who knows where…or even if…we’d be without them!