Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Amalek and Us – In the Parasha and at the Protests (8)

Post Shabbat Jerusalem Demonstration, 25 February. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
'Save Democracy', post-Shabbat demonstration, Jerusalem, February 25, 2023. (Diana Lipton)

This is my eighth consecutive post about a connection between the parasha and the pro-democracy protests taking place all over Israel. 

The regular parasha this shabbat is Tetzaveh, but, in honor of Shabbat Zakhor, the shabbat before Purim, we’ll also read verses from Deuteronomy about Amalek (Deut 25:17-19). Those verses are my theme.

On Monday night, hundreds of Jewish settlers stormed an Arab village to avenge the murder of two Jewish men from a nearby settlement. Violent intimidation by settlers is a way of life in Palestinian villages, but the vicious, pre-planned attack on Hawara involved many more settlers and much more violence than usual. The mob set fire to cars and property, burning dozens of houses, including one with a family inside who were rescued by the IDF (themselves at risk). Hundreds of Palestinians were injured, some seriously, and a 37-year old Palestinian man was killed.

Even as this pogrom  (I’m far from alone in naming it that) was taking place, some members of what we are supposed to call our government encouraged the settlers. Later, one called the destruction they wreaked in Hawara an effective deterrence. The strongest official rebuke was the Prime Minister’s call to settlers not to take the law into their own hands. Yesterday, the Head of America’s Orthodox Union, a religious body that seldom criticizes Israel’s government in public, said, among other harsh condemnations, that ‘attacking a village does not deserve to be called ‘taking the law into your own hands”’.

Like many religious Jews, Yair ‘Yaya’ Fink, who ran for Israel’s Labor Party in the last election, saw the Hawara rampage as a desecration of God’s name. The next morning, he set up a crowd-funding website for victims of the attack, undertaking to work with police and the IDF to ensure that all money would go to legitimate victims. He hoped to raise 100,000 shekels (about $27,000), but by the end of the day, more than 8,300 donors had donated the shekel equivalent of almost $327,000. There are so many good people here, but today I’m not writing about them.

Until now, the weekly post-Shabbat demonstrations, the large protests outside the Knesset, and other demonstrations taking place throughout Israel have concentrated on preserving Israel’s democracy. But on Monday night, there were demonstrations around the country in response to Hawara, and another was scheduled for Wednesday outside the Knesset, part of a national day of disruption. The spotlight has already shifted to behavior that characterizes non-Democratic regimes, such as extremist violence, at best unchecked, at worst encouraged, by the state.

The Torah’s first account of Israel’s war with Amalek is in Exodus 17:8-16. The Israelites encounter the Amalekites soon after leaving Egypt. Joshua leads a battle against them while Moses at first stands, then sits on a stone, on a hill above the action. As long as Moses’ arms are raised, the Israelites prevail. If his arms fall, the Amalekites prevail. Aaron and Hur help support Moses’ arms when he flags. Moses must have looked something like a pair of weighing scales. (I’ll return to that thought.)

The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, featuring Moses with outstretched arms on the horizon, Nicholas Poussin, c. 1623-1626. Wikimedia.

The narrative concludes with some difficult verses.

Exodus 17:14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a remembrance in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 And Moses built an altar and called it, The Lord is my banner. 16 He said, “A hand upon the banner of the Lord! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.

Moses’ hands aside, the battle report that precedes these verses presents it as a skirmish typical of Israel’s encounters in the wilderness. There’s nothing to explain God’s promise to blot out Amalek’s memory (v. 14), or why he’ll wage eternal war with the Amalekites (v. 16).

Deuteronomy 25:17-19 fills the gap. The Amalekites did not merely come and fight, as Exodus reports, but attacked from behind when Israel was hungry and weak, targeting the stragglers at the back. Amalek was singled out by God for ruthlessness.

Deuteronomy 25:17 “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.

But there are surprises. Deuteronomy does not mention God’s eternal war with Amalek, and the responsibility for blotting out his memory is transferred from God (Exod 17:14) to Israel (Deut 25:19). What happened?

A key to understanding is context. The book of Deuteronomy opens with Israel’s wilderness wanderings, including the enemies she faced (chapters 2 and 3). But the battle with the Amalekites is not mentioned there. Instead it concludes a list of laws that look arbitrary but are intricately interwoven with each other and Amalek. All of them deal with conflict and abuse — the kind that occurs between people who know each other, close to home. The word ‘brother’ occurs six times in this 19-verse chapter.

In a legal dispute whose settlement requires a man to be flogged, no more than forty lashes are permitted, ‘lest your brother be degraded before your eyes’ (Deut 25:3). Excessive punishment is abuse.

An ox must not be muzzled it while it’s ploughing, in other words, starved by its owner even as it labors for him (Deut 25:4). That too is abuse.

The brother of a man who dies childless must marry his dead brother’s widow and dedicate their first son to him, so that ‘his name may not be blotted out in Israel’. If he refuses, he’ll be humiliated by publicly removing his sandal and declaring that he will henceforth be known as ‘the family of the unsandaled one’ (Deut 25:5-10). In other words, the name of the uncooperative brother will also be blotted out – like Amalek’s.

If two men are fighting – in Hebrew ish ve’ahiv, ‘a man and his brother’ – and the wife of one of them attempts to rescue her husband by striking his opponent’s genitals, she will be punished by having her hand cut off. Like its predecessor, this law deals with brothers, though probably not biological brothers, and procreation. The woman’s hand threatened her husband’s opponent’s lineage.

It is forbidden to have two stones of unequal size ‘in your pouch’ (Deut 25:13). I won’t elaborate on how this connects visually with the preceding law about genitals… And I’ll repeat only in passing that Moses must have looked like weighing scales while sitting, arms outstretched, on his stone above the battle with Amalek (Exod 17:12).

This detail scene, from the Papyrus of Hunefer (c. 1275 BCE), shows the scribe Hunefer’s heart being weighed on the scale of Maat against the feather of truth, by the jackal-headed Anubis. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. If his heart equals exactly the weight of the feather, Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. British Museum. Wikimedia.

The plain meaning of these verses is against cheating with false weights and measures – selling what you claim is a kilo of flour when it’s only 800 grams. Dishonesty in business foreshortens a long life in the land; a person who exploits in this way is ‘abhorrent’ to God (Deut 25:15-16).

Now comes Amalek, which we’ll read in the light of the laws that precede it.

Moses exhorts his listeners to ‘remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt’ (Deut 25:17). But only two members of Moses’ audience, Joshua and Caleb, were there when it happened; everyone else had since died in the wilderness. The people hearing his words on the brink of entering the land, and all of us hearing and reading them to this day, will ‘remember’ what appears next: ‘how he surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear’ (Deut 25:18).

Protecting stragglers, the marginalized members of society – widows, orphans, strangers, the poor – is uniquely emphasized in Deuteronomy (Deut 10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17-21; 25:7; 26:12-13; 27:19). No other biblical book comes close.

What we – yes, the obligation was transferred to us – must remember to blot out on Shabbat Zakhor, is not, I think, Amalek or the Amalekites – who but for the Torah would long ago have been forgotten. It is the gratuitously violent and abusive behavior in our own society, the shameless violations of what we now call human rights, that are identified with Amalek and memorialize him each time we commit them.

To underline the point that the threat of being blotted out now applies to us instead of Amalek, the narrative is positioned not in the context of Israel’s desert foes or the laws of warfare (Deut 20), but at the end of a list of laws that determine how we behave towards each other, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, the people who live among and alongside us. We will be judged for our behavior towards them, especially the weak and disadvantaged.

The settlers who attacked Hawara don’t look to the Torah as a moral guide. That’s why the rest of us must take to the streets to condemn their despicable behavior and that of the government ministers who are actively promoting it, playing it down, or turning a blind eye.

Join a demonstration. There are so many to choose from…

Protect the shared home.
About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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