“Eternal Vigilance” Parashat Tetzaveh – Zachor 5780

Two weeks ago, we read “Parashat Shekalim”, the first of the special “Four Parshiot” read before Passover, heralding the onset of Passover cleaning. This week we will be reading “Parashat Zachor”, adjuring us to remember the sinister Nation of Amalek, who brazenly attacked the Jewish People soon after their exodus from Egypt. We read Parashat Zachor on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman, the villain in the Purim story, was directly descended from the Amalekite King Agag.

Parashat Zachor consists of three verses [Devarim 25:17-19]: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of G-d, he happened upon you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when G-d grants you safety from all your enemies around you in the land that G-d is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” It seems strange that of all of the nations that have attacked the Jewish People over the years, the only nation that we are required to actively remember is Amalek. Was Amalek any worse than the Egyptians, who ruthlessly subjugated us and murdered our children? Was Amalek any worse than the Philistines, who pillaged the Mishkan, stole the Holy Ark and killed our first king, Saul[1]?

We can better understand what it is that we are meant to remember if we better understand the concept of “remembering”. We read the verses in Parashat Zachor twice a year: Once, in their organic location in Parashat Ki Tetze, typically read around Rosh Hashanah, and once the Shabbat before Purim. We might be led to believe that if we read three verses once or twice a year, then we have met our requirement to “remember”. Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel from Apta, writing in “Ohev Yisrael”, begs to differ. Rabbi Heschel directs our attention to a similarly worded verse [Shemot 20:8]: “Remember the Shabbat day and keep it holy”. The Talmud in Tractate Beitzah [16a] teaches “They said about Shammai the Elder that all his days he would eat in honour of Shabbat. How so? If he found a choice animal, he would say: This is for Shabbat. If he subsequently found another one choicer than it, he would set aside the second for Shabbat and eat the first. He would eat the first to leave the better-quality animal for Shabbat, which continually rendered his eating an act of honouring Shabbat.” Remembering the Shabbat is not a one-time event. Remembering the Shabbat is a state of mind. We must constantly be aware of the Shabbat, seven days a week. Similarly, asserts Rabbi Heschel, our remembering of Amalek is more than remembering a one-time event that occurred more than three thousand years ago. Amalek must always be on our mind, seven days a week. Using geopolitical terminology, the commandment to remember Amalek is not tactical, it is strategic. The question remains: Why is it so important?

Let’s take a closer look at Amalek’s attack. Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, known as the “Or HaChaim HaKadosh”, who lived in Morocco and in Israel in the first half of the seventeenth century, is puzzled by the fact that Amalek got close enough to the Jewish People to draw blood. The Or HaChaim interprets[2] the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [3b] as teaching that the Clouds of Glory that accompanied the Jewish People in the desert after the exodus served as camouflage,  rendering them invisible. How, then, did the Amalekites discover them? The Or HaChaim answers that when the Torah tells us that the Amalekites “happened upon” the Jewish People, it means that their discovery was accidental. The Amalekites “just happened” to be in the right place at the right time. But if this is so, why does the Torah command us to remember the results of a chance encounter? The explanation of the Or HaChaim reminds me of the “SEALS Disaster”. On the night of September 4, 1997, a group of Israeli commandos from the elite Shayetet-13 SEALS were ambushed by the Hezbollah during a stealth operation in Lebanon. Eleven commandos were killed in the ensuing firefight. How did the Hezbollah discover the commandos? For years, we were told that the Hezbollah “just happened” to be in the right place at the right time. But no  matter how hard we tried, this answer was impossible to digest. These things don’t just happen. Twenty years later, the army revealed that the Hezbollah had intercepted video from an Israeli drone that was tracking the operation, disclosing the location of the commandos. In the same vein, Amalek’s discovery of the Jewish People was not accidental. Immediately before the attack of Amalek, the Jewish People complain to Moses that they are thirsty, he hits a rock, and the people drink. The Talmud in Tractate Bechorot [5b] teaches that they were punished for their cantankerous behaviour by being set upon by Amalek. These things don’t just happen.

It seems fair to equate “remembering Amalek” with “eternal vigilance”. What is it that are we being vigilant about? Drones? Complaints? Let’s return to the scripture. In all three verses in Parashat Zachor, action is levied only upon man: We must remember, we must blot out, we must never forget. Compare this with the wording in the original story of Amalek’s attack where G-d is the subject [Shemot 17:8-16] “G-d said to Moses… ‘I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!’ …Hand upon the throne of G-d!’ G-d will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” In the commandment to remember Amalek, G-d has been relegated to a supporting role: When G-d grants you safety from all your enemies around you then you shall blot out the memory of Amalek. How will we know that the time is right to blot out the memory of Amalek? How do we determine that G-d has granted us “safety from all of our enemies”?

Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, the leader of American Jewry in the second half of the twentieth century, addresses this question. In the Purim story, after Haman passes his edict calling for the extermination of the Jews, we are told [Esther 4:1] “Mordechai knew all that had happened”. What did Mordechai know that others did not know? Rabbi Soloveichik explains that Mordechai looked at all that had happened, how the king had gone mad and executed his wife, how out of all the women in Persia, his niece had been chosen queen, and how immediately afterwards the Jews are targeted for extermination. Mordechai knew – he understood – that these events were not random. They were part of a mosaic that would change history. Mordechai understood and then he acted. The rest, as they say, is history.

It is impossible to know unequivocally that G-d has granted us safety from all of our enemies. The best we can do is to analyse the geopolitical arena, to look at seemingly random events as pieces of a larger puzzle, and to infer that the war is not only over, but that it has been convincingly won. This conclusion can give us new insight regarding the commandment to remember Amalek. When the Torah spells out conditions for blotting out the “memory of Amalek”, it does not merely relegate G-d to a supporting role. I suggest that G-d has no role at all in the commandment. G-d only triggers the commandment. Not only must we remember, must we blot out, must we never forget, but we must determine if the war has been won. We must constantly try to peer through the fog to infer the majesty and the power of G-d’s Divine Hand: from the battlefields of Lebanon, from the hospitals in China, and from the stars in the sky. An infinite G-d speaks to man through the medium of a finite corporeal world. The message is garbled but we must do all we can to understand and to act.

Amalek as a nation no longer exists. The last Amalekite took his last breath thousands of years ago. He will never attack us again. “Eternal vigilance” seems to be a waste of our time. And yet, the commandment to remember Amalek is still relevant. The commandment to remember Amalek is simultaneously a commandment to be eternally vigilant by seeking out an eternal and all-powerful G-d.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Tehila bat Adi.

[1] Saul actually fell on his sword, but he was already fatally wounded by the Philistines.

[2] IMHO, this is not the strictly simple understanding of the Talmud.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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