Creating a world free of Amalek [Shabbat Zachor]
Each year on Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath that precedes the festival of Purim, we read from a selection in the Book of Deuteronomy about the need to remember the vicious attack on the most vulnerable of the Jews by the nation of Amalek. Interestingly, however, there is another record of the battle that appears elsewhere in the Torah, containing additional elements of the incident.
That account is in the Book of Exodus, which we read on Purim morning prior to the Megillah: “And then came Amalek and fought with Israel in Refidim…And God said to Moses, ‘…I will blot out (“emche”) the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven!’” [Ex. 17:8-16]. It is important to note that this section appears in its historical context, following the exodus and prior to the giving of the Torah.
This is not so in Deuteronomy, where the reference to Amalek appears without warning and is out of historical context. “Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you were coming out of Egypt; how he met you by the way, and smote your hindmost: all that were feeble in the rear, when you were faint and weary; and they did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, to possess it, you shall blot out (“timche”) the remembrance of Amalek from under Heaven; do not forget!’ [Deut. 25:17-19].
A number of questions arise from these passages. First, the account in Deuteronomy provides many more details about the attack in question, greatly enriching our understanding of the contemporaneous account in Exodus. Why separate the dissemination of details into two sections?
Second, since the commandment is to blot out the memory of Amalek, what do its two different verb forms signify? In Exodus, God informs Moses, “I will blot out (“emche”) the memory of Amalek”, whereas in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people, “YOU shall blot out (“timche”) the memory of Amalek”. Who is to actually do the job?
Finally, why is there a need for a special Sabbath dedicated to remembering Amalek’s genocide attempt, when only several days later, we will celebrate Purim, which records the destruction of Amalek’s infamous descendant, Haman?
To answer these questions, we turn to Maimonides’ Laws of Kings, where he codifies the commandment regarding the destruction of the seven indigenous nations in the land of Canaan. He concludes that this directive is no longer feasible, as “their identity and memory have been lost,” due to a policy of mass population transfer ordered by King Sancherib of Assyria, which “mixed the nations” that he conquered [BT, Brachot 28a]. However, in the following paragraph, as Maimonides codifies the mandate to destroy Amalek, he omits mention of its identity having been lost [Laws of Kings, 5:4-5].
On this basis of this critical difference, my revered mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, z”l, cited his grandfather, Rav Chaim of Brisk, who distinguished between the physical nation of Amalek and the ideology of Amalek. The former once lived near Canaan (and which has since been rendered indistinguishable by Sancherib’s population transfer), while the latter’s goal is to destroy Israel and our unique message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice for the world.
Indeed, the ideology of Amalek exists in every generation, with many different identities, from Sparta-Rome, to the Ottoman Empire, to Nazi Germany, to ISIS and to modern-day Iran. They each believed that to the powerful victor belong the spoils; they each maintain that might makes right!
With this in mind, our two passages can be better understood. The verses in Exodus describe the nation of Amalek attacking the Jewish People with the aim of nothing less than total genocide. Even as we took up arms in self-defense, the Almighty promises that He will finish the job for us (“I will blot out Amalek”).
But Amalek is not merely a specific nation at a specific moment of Jewish history. It is an ideology, Amalek-ism, if you will: the denial of the Israelite mission promised to Abraham the first Hebrew, that we will eventually teach all the families of the earth God’s without design of a world of peace and universal love.
From this perspective, the passage in Deuteronomy that we read on the Sabbath before Purim deals with the larger issue of Amalek-ism, not simply with the ancient nation of Amalek. It is no wonder, then, that this command to destroy Amalek is not within the historical context of the exodus from Egypt. Rather, it is in the context of commandments, the means by which we are distinct and through which we will ultimately become a light unto all the nations, when everyone will accept at least the moral commands of our holy Torah, when all peoples will beat their swords into ploughshares and will make love instead of war [Is. 2].
Therefore, it is specifically on Shabbat – a taste of the idyllic World to Come – before the holiday when we bested the original Amalek, that we are commanded to “blot out” not only Amalek but Amalek-ism, by eventually converting all nations to the acceptance of Jewish morality, at the very least!
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A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.