Remembering Amalek

For Parshat Zakhor

A few weeks ago, I needed to fill the gas can so I could use my snow blower.  I noticed that the gas pump at has a sign warning that people must use a certified safe gas container to hold gasoline from the pump.   Fortunately, my gas can meets the requirement.

The requirement makes sense.  If you use a glass container, you have gone pretty far towards building a Molotov cocktail, a dangerous offensive weapon.  If you use a container that reacts with gasoline, or a porous container, or one with a leak,  or one that degrades, you have gone pretty far towards burning your own house down, heaven forefend.

Resentment, feeling hurt and aggrieved, hating an antagonist, cursing an antagonist – these resemble gasoline in a container.  It could be that cursing someone brings harm to that person, though I cannot guess by what mechanism.  Nurturing the desire to curse the person certainly brings harm to the container, to the person who holds the grudge.   “Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kappar used to say: Jealousy, lust, and ambition remove man from the world (Avot 4:28).”

And yet the Torah reading for parshat Zakhor (Deut. 25: 17-19) asks us to preserve our resentment against our cousins, the tribe of Amalek, for the terrible thing their ancestors did to ours.  When we were miraculously freed from slavery in Egypt, struggling though the dessert, Amalek attacked from the back, going after the weakest and most vulnerable.   They did not “fear God.”

In the Hebrew Bible, “fear God” has nothing to do with theological beliefs.  It always means common decency, which is not so common; “they that have the power to hurt, and will do none,” in the terminology of the Hebrew Bible, “fear God.”   Amalek, attacking for no particular reason, lack this “fear of God.”

The people who perpetrated that attack deserve condemnation.  I do not know why we should carry resentment and hatred against the descendants of the people for that despicable attack more than three thousand years ago.   Why should their descendants bear any responsibility for the act?  I do not know how our resentment and hatred could hurt those descendents now, if any such descendants exist.  It feels like the resentment and aggrieved feeling could hurt only us.

But the Torah insists that we preserve those feelings, that we never forget what Amalek did to us.  So we read the commandments to remember , never to forget, to anticipate destroying Amalek.

Sifrei understands that “do not forget” means in the mind, so “remember” must mean “in words.”

Who has to remember?

It seems that all Jews must remember.  Sefer HaHinnukh comes up with the new idea that women do not (#603; see also 604, 605).  None of the earlier sources mention an exemption for women, but the author of Sefer HaHinnukh observes that this remembering is all about war, and women are not warriors.   Rabbi Joseph Babad, in his commentary on the Sefer HaHinnukh called Minhat Hinnukh, objects for three reasons (#603, 604, 605).

  1. Remembering Amalek it not a positive, time-bound commandment, the sort of commandment which does not always apply to women.
  2. Remembering Amalek is includes a negative commandment as well, “do not forget.” Women are generally obligated in all negative comments (commands not to do something), and typically are obligated in all positive commandments which entail negative commandments as well.
  3. The war against Amalek counts as a commanded war. According to the Mishnah, for a commanded war, even a bride from under her canopy goes out to fight (Sotah 8:7).

When do we have to remember?  Minhat Hinnukh offers some possibilities.

This could count as a continuous commandment.  People who recite the six commandments of remembering after morning services each morning recite this passage every day (Minhat Hinnukh #603).

At the other extreme we could have to remember Amalek once in a lifetime.  If you ever did it, you have accomplished all requirements (Minhat Hinnukh #603).

Sefer HaHinnukh raises an intermediate possibility, that when we hear the passage read from a Torah scroll during the regular order of services once a year, or once every two or three years, that should suffice.  Apparently the Israeli rite practice of reading the Torah in triennial cycles still existed, and was known, in Barcelona in the thirteenth century (#604).

But we have an additional reading on the Shabbat before Purim, connecting Purim with the destruction of Amalek, in accordance with the Midrash that Haman descends from Amalek.  As we prepare to recall how our people survived the machinations of Haman, we recall also that destroying him fulfilled a commandment.   As Minhat Hinnukh points out, the requirement to hear this passage read in public reading, from a scroll, has to qualify as a rabbinic commandment.  The Torah requires only that we verbally remember.

The commandment of waging war against Amalek applies to the whole community of Israel, rather than to individuals (Sever HaHinnukh #604).  Nowadays, with no identified Amalekites, it seems that we need take no concrete action beyond remembering, and mentioning, our feelings towards Amalek. I wonder how we protect ourselves against the corrosive effects of such memories, against the danger of storing the gasoline in the wrong kind of container.

People who preserve and cultivate their sense of grievance against others embitter their own lives, and potentially can become inspired to endanger others, as we see only too clearly in this week’s news.

But what present value accrues to us for remembering this incident?  Perhaps this: that when we had no apparent power, another group came and treated us as prey.  We should never accept the value judgments of the bullies who would treat us as prey.  When we see bullies hurting other vulnerable people, we should never side with the bullies.  How much more so should we remember that, when we have power, we must never treat the weak as prey.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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