“Remember: to recall to the mind by an act or effort of memory; think of again.”
For most of us, it’s hard to remember — regardless of whether it’s the hour of a job interview or dentist appointment. We write things down and often forget to look at it. Sometimes, we store a vital piece of information and after a short time dismiss its importance.
Indeed, the only thing in the Torah that is incumbent for us to remember is Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people, unadulterated by time or distance. We add this reminder to this week’s Torah portion.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you left Egypt.”
Still, Jews forget easily, perhaps more than most people. But Amalek never forgets. For thousands of years, he has continued Esau’s war against his twin brother Jacob.
The ancient commentator Yonatan Ben Uziel tells us that Amalek harbored the vow of his grandfather Esau to kill Jacob and his progeny. But Amalek waited until Jacob and his 12 sons entered Egypt. G-d had said that the children of Issac would endure 400 years of suffering. Amalek reasoned that should he kill Jacob, then there would be nobody left but Esau’s children to fulfill the divine promise.
So, Amalek waited 210 years until the Jewish people left Egypt. Yonatan Ben Uziel says Amalek led his force 1,600 miles in one night to catch up with the newly-liberated nation. There, the troops saw that the Jews were protected by the divine cloud. But at the back of the huge convoy of Jews was the tribe of Dan. They were like any other stragglers, detached from the main group and in a different world — one of idolatry.
That was the opening Amalek needed, and Dan was ambushed. Many in the tribe were killed. It took time until Moses could gather an army to protect Dan and the rest of the people.
Jewish history has been marked by the viciousness of Esau and his children. They have never missed an opportunity to try to destroy the Jewish people. Whether Esau, Amalek or Edom, they lie in wait. When they are weak, they form coalitions. When they are strong, they lead other nations in attacking the Jews.
The sages have compared Amalek to a dog, an animal that attacks in packs but cowardly when alone. At other times, Amalek is a fly, always looking for an opening to reach its target. When the victim’s skin is unblemished, the fly is powerless to make a breach. But if the fly spots the smallest contusion, it immediately widens the hole.
The Yalkut explains the metaphor. When the Jewish people are at peace with each other and joined to G-d, Amalek can do nothing. But if the Jews are fighting among themselves, then Amalek has found his breach.
And that is what we must remember: that the hate between Jews does not stay within the family. It quickly emerges for exploitation by our enemies. It allows them to weaken us, plant agents within and soon we are manipulated by those with the worst of intentions.
During World War II, American Jews numbered more than five million. They marked the swing vote in major states that comprised 25 percent of the Electoral College. United, they could have changed history. They could have opened the gates of Palestine after Britain’s White Paper in 1939. They could have forced the Allies to protect the Jews in occupied Europe or bring them to safety.
Instead, the unelected Jewish leaders fought among themselves, driven by rivalry, ego and money. Jacob Rosenheim of Agudat Israel described it as “dog eat dog.” Cooperation to help the Jews in Europe was simply impossible. The inability to present a united position exacerbated the White House, and once President Franklin D. Roosevelt was heard to mutter that he wished that the Jews had a pope.
But the situation was perfect for the anti-Semites in Washington. One of the worst was Breckinridge Long, given the title assistant secretary state for “special problems.” Long admired Hitler, particularly Mein Kampf, which he regarded as “eloquent in opposition to Jewry and to Jews as exponents of communism and chaos.”
Long flourished amid the war of the Jews. He was able to incite one leader against another. In January 1944, he wrote in his diary, “The Jewish organizations are all divided amid controversies…There is no cohesion or any sympathetic collaboration — rather rivalry, jealousy and antagonism.”
The greatest trigger of disunity comes when Jews cannot trust their brethren: when Jews routinely cheat each other , lie to each other and find every advantage over their neighbor. Then G-d steps in with Amalek, always behind the corner.
There is another aspect to Amalek. He is a chameleon, able to transform into whatever is required to deceive the Jewish people. Sometimes, he is dressed as a general, statesman or intellectual. If need be, he can don rabbinical garb and pretend he is one of the Jewish sages. The Midrash says that Esau looked so much like Jacob that the patriarch’s son, Yehuda, couldn’t tell them apart.
In the end, those who choose not to remember, erase the past. Soon after the State of Israel was established David Ben-Gurion touted the new democratic and liberal West Germany. As the reparations money poured into Israel, he and his colleagues ignored the neo-Nazi government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer as well as German aid to Egypt and Syria’s missile and nonconventional weapons program. Instead, Ben-Gurion constantly proposed new ways for Germans and Israelis to be friends and partners, whether in business, culture or weapons. The narrative of the Holocaust was drastically revised.
The same American Jewish leaders who blocked rescue in World War II helped quash an independent investigation of their behavior in the early 1980s. They recruited Israeli and American historians. One of them was Marie Syrkin, who declared the effort to learn the truth “necrophilia.”
Without memory, there is no truth. And without truth, there is no room for G-d. He either doesn’t exist or doesn’t care. After all the miracles in Egypt and in the desert, some of the Jews were still asking, “Is G-d among us or not?”
G-d did not remain silent: “By your lives, the dog will come and bite you,” Rashi quotes G-d as saying, “and then you will scream to Me and you will know where I am.”
Must this lesson be repeated today?