Marc J. Rosenstein

Remembering Amalek

Here we are, in the slog of “Iron Swords,” and it’s Shabbat Zachor, when we read:

“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)

This passages raises troubling questions that have particular resonance in our current situation:

  1. Why were there stragglers?

Why didn’t Moses and his deputies take care to insure the safety and welfare of the entire nation?  Why was the rear of the column not guarded?  Why was there not sufficient solidarity within the nation to insure that no one was left behind, on the edge, unprotected?  Could it be that we are commanded to remember Amalek in order to remember our own failure, so as to make sure that we never repeat it?

  1. What are we supposed to do with this commandment?

For centuries, the traditional interpretation of this passage held:  according to the Talmud (Berachot 28a), when the Assyrians conquered the region in 722 BCE they engaged in a policy of ethnic mixing, so that the identities of all the local nations (like Amalek – and our ten “lost” tribes) were erased.  There are no more Amalekites.  Therefore, we fulfill the commandment by reading this passage every year, and by blotting out the memory of Haman the Amalekite during the reading of Megilat Esther on Purim.

In the middle ages, the Zohar suggested that Amalekism is not an ethnic identity but a cosmic one – and that it refers to a force of evil that continues to exist in every generation.  This view (which, perhaps, echoes the Church Fathers’ view that Amalek was Satan) lay mostly dormant through – and despite – centuries of Jewish suffering; it rose to prominence in the wake of the Holocaust, when many – including influential rabbis – identified the Nazis as Amalekites.  From there it was an easy transition to attaching the label to the enemies of the new state of Israel.  In 1956 Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote of Amalek:

“In the nineteen thirties and forties the Nazis, with Hitler in the lead, … were the Amalekites…  Today their place has been taken by the masses led by Nasser and the Mufti.”

Then, in 1980, Rabbi Israel Hess published an article in the Bar Ilan University student newspaper, arguing that the Arabs of today are both spiritually and genetically Amalekites, and as such must be physically destroyed.  And on Purim, 1994, Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian Arabs while they were praying in a mosque in Hebron.  It is hard to imagine that Rabbi Soloveitchik would have ruled that Baruch Goldstein was acting in accordance with halakhah; but it is also easy to see that once the genie of “Amalekism” as a concept with current historical application has escaped from the bottle, it is very difficult to put it back in.

And now here we are, reading about Amalek’s attack on the stragglers as we are engaged in a brutal war against an enemy who carried out a surprise attack on our own stragglers.  Surely hundreds of sermons will be delivered this week asserting that Hamas – or all Palestinians – are Amalek.  That is, history is not past, but eternal.  We were innocent victims of vicious Amalek then, and we continue to be innocent victims now.  The fact that we have a sovereign state and a powerful army is not relevant.  The fact that we have the power to flatten our enemy’s cities and kill tens of thousands of its people is not relevant.  Amalek is the embodiment of evil, which makes us the embodiment of good.  And it follows that we bear no responsibility for anything that has happened to us (or to them).

So are we to believe that the Jews’ finally emerging from powerlessness is meaningless because they can never stop being victims of eternal Amalek?  If so, then power is an illusion.  Or could it be that Amalek really disappeared as the rabbis of the Talmud taught, and that today, no nation is the embodiment of evil, none the embodiment of good; rather we are all responsible for the choices we have made, and we always have new ones facing us, as individuals and as a nation.  So if we believe that power is not an illusion, then we have to accept the responsibility that comes with it.

Perhaps we can learn from Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who saw Amalek like this:

“Every person in Israel must blot out the evil part known as Amalek which is buried in their heart; [the midrash] “as long as the seed of Amalek is found in the world God’s throne is incomplete” (Pesikta D’Rab Kahana 3, Zachor) implies that since each person is a small world, then Amalek is found in the evil force in every person which awakes all the time to cause them to sin.”

About the Author
Marc Rosenstein grew up in Chicago, was ordained a Reform rabbi, and received his PhD in modern Jewish history from The Hebrew University. He made aliyah with his family in 1990, to Moshav Shorashim in the Galilee. He served for 20 years as executive director of the Galilee Foundation for Value Education, and for six as director of the Israel rabbinic program of HUC in Jerusalem. Most recent books: Turnng Points in Jewish History (JPS 2018); Contested Utopia: Jewish Dreams and Israeli Realities (JPS 2021).
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