It’s a memory thing – Zachor!
Memory’s a tricky thing. This week we read the one annual Torah section which we believe is obligatory to hear: Parshat ZACHOR (the section called Remember). It’s a curious trio of verses, which contain the injunction to remember the dastardly nature of our national nemesis Amalek. In three sentences we have a little narrative, a command, and a little advice. But there’s also a little fly in the ointment (Isn’t there always?). We’re simultaneously required to ‘remember’ and to ‘blot out the memory’. Let’s explore a few approaches to dealing with this paradox.
We could finesse the issue with a little verbal sleight of hand (is that a mixed metaphor?). Initially we’re told ZACHOR, ‘remember’. Later we’re told to blot out the ZECHER (different grammatical construct of the verb), which can mean to ‘mention’. So, perhaps, we’re enjoined to remember never to mention Amalek. At least, get society to push Amalek off the front page.
But our rabbis were much cleverer than that over the ages. The S’fat Emet (Tetzave, 1871) suggested that this whole process takes place within our soul. The ZECHER of Amalek is our own struggle to defeat the forces of evil present within us all. So, the Rebbe avers, when we ZACHOR (‘remember’) we defeat the foe and the ZECHER has been obliterated.
This clever suggestion makes a lot of sense for someone living in a suburb of Warsaw in the late nineteenth century. The Rebbe had many followers, but no army to muster against a physical foe. Plus, the ruling Russian Empire would have frowned upon the formation of a Jewish army. In GALUT, the whole concept becomes an idea rather than a physical reality. How sad!
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch proposed something similar in the German Empire: Only when we have a righteous society can we turn to the struggle with Amalek, who misleads and blinds humanity with the splendor of his promises. Only then can we frustrate the error of Amalek. Not by arms, rather through the power of God, grounded in our profound faith in God and strict observance of God’s ethic (MUSAR).
The Sh’nei Luchot Habrit (Reb Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz) made ALIYA in 1621, and, I believe, as a result had a different approach. He suggested that we can obliterate the contradiction by simply writing: I have found that the Torah divides this commandment into two halves. When the Jewish people are politically independent and strong, the part of the commandment we are obligated to fulfill is “to wipe out the memory of Amalek.” When we are politically impotent, we must still fulfill the part of the commandment which bids us “not to forget.” One performs this part by cursing the name of Amalek and what that nation stands for.
Coming to Eretz Yisrael gets those martial juices flowing. Here we have the national spirit to get the job done. We can identify Amalek, by definition any forces trying to destroy us, and then emulate Yehoshua and fight back. I just pray we maintain the resolve. So, here in the proto-redeemed State we have the means to fulfill the Mitzva as demanded by God and the Torah. As a result, we can turn to another question: What causes our implacable foe, Amalek, to appear?
Rav Amital Z”L of Yeshivat Har Etziyon took on that task and came to a clear conclusion: Amalek appears when Jews ‘test’ God. He developed this idea by analyzing the first appearance of Amalek in the desert while the Jews were marching from Egypt to Har Sinai. The Jews were complaining (the norm while on the march in the MIDBAR), and God provides water and the MAN.
However, when the Jews come to Rephidim, they again whine. Instead of making legitimate complaints, they decided to ‘test’ God. Here’s what Moshe said to them: The people quarreled with Moses. “Give us water to drink,” they said; and Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test (TINASUN) the Eternal?” (Shmot 17:2). The place is eventually called MASAH U’MERIVA, the place of ‘testing’ and quarreling, because the Jews were asking: Is God in our midst or not? (Verse 7).
Rav Amital explains that ‘It was not a simple matter to believe that even in such tribulation, God was with them. However, God brought Amalek to teach the nation that even in these situations, one may not test God.’ He goes on to quote the Chazan Ish who insisted that we must accept that everything that happens is the will of God, even if we don’t find it pleasant or the situation isn’t the one we wanted. When Jews announce that they know God’s will and that some circumstance won’t happen because God wouldn’t allow it, they anger God and summon Amalek. Rav Amital says that is exactly what happened in Europe before the Holocaust, when many famous rabbis declared that God wouldn’t allow the destruction of European Jewry.
We must walk humbly and innocently (TAMIM) with God. It’s the arrogance of claiming to know what God has in store for the nation that tempts fate and summons Amalek. Just remember King David’s answer to the question ‘Who may sojourn in Your tent, and dwell on You Holy Mountain?’. He taught: One who walks innocently does TZEDEK and speaks truth from the heart (Tehillim 15:1 & 2). This behavior does something even greater than defeating Amalek; it prevents Amalek from coming in the first place. ׂ