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Shabbat Zachor: The Origins of Amalek

Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek ba’derech b’tzeitchem miMitzrayim, asher korcha ba’derech va’yezanev b’cha kol ha’necheshalim acharecha, v’atah ayef v’yageia v’lo yarei Elohim.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt: how, undeterred by reverence for God, they surprised you on the way when you were famished and weary, and took out the weakest who were trailing behind. (Deuteronomy 25:17-18)

Purim arrives next week, commencing on Wednesday evening. We will be celebrating a “Klezmer Purim” this year on Wednesday, March 23 at 7pm that I guarantee you will enjoy, and I hope you can join us!

This Shabbat, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Purim, is known as Shabbat Zachor, which means the Shabbat of “Remember”. It is so named because of the special passage from Torah that is appended to this Shabbat’s Torah reading, the beginning of which is quoted above. It begins with the word Zachor, Remember. This passage then describes the way our enemy Amalek attacked us from the rear, taking out the weak and the helpless among us.

The remainder of the passage then instructs us:

Therefore, when YHVH your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that YHVH your God is giving you as your portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:19)

Who is Amalek?

Amalek is one of many tribes mentioned in the Torah. Amalek is a tribe descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother. But in Biblical tradition Amalek clearly transcends any specific tribal identity and instead assumes the archetypal role of the embodiment of evil. In Jewish parlance, when we say “Amalek”, we mean that which is irredeemably evil. For example, Hitler is commonly referred to as a descendant of Amalek. Many Jews, when they utter Hitler’s name, will add “yimach sh’mo” – “May his name be blotted out!” thereby following the instruction from Deuteronomy to blot out the memory of Amalek.

But what about Amalek’s behavior makes them so especially evil in the eyes of the Torah? It is that they attack the weak and helpless. We know that predators in the animal kingdom kill the weakest of the herd, and that is the law of the jungle. Some humans embrace that principle as a law of human behavior as well. But the Torah exhorts us to master and to transcend that system. The Torah insists that we replace the dominance of brute power with a society that embraces compassion for the weak. The central message of the Torah is that we must care for the weak, the stranger, the widow and the orphan, because they too are made in the Divine image, and therefore they too have irreducible value simply by virtue of being human. This is why the Torah keeps repeating that we must remember what it felt like to be strangers in the Land of Egypt. The message of the Torah, and of Judaism, is that to the degree that we treat other human beings as less worthy of life than ourselves, we invite evil into the world. If we totally dehumanize the other, we are evil. Hitler dispatched with his victims’ names and literally reduced them to numbers: that is the Jewish definition of evil. Haman has a lottery (the Hebrew meaning of Purim) to determine the day on which he will annihilate the Jews. He plays dice with our lives. That is evil. The Torah asserts: YHVH made the human beings in the Divine image – every single one of us. Our passage states that Amalek attacked the weak “undeterred by reverence for God.” In Judaism, to revere God is to see God’s countenance shining out from the faces of other human beings. Amalek lacks this reverence, and therefore has no pangs of conscience as it wreaks its destruction.

Our Sages then ask: how did Amalek become so unhinged? That is, what are the roots of this evil? How does someone become such an implacable enemy? To search for an explanation they look for other mentions of Amalek in the Torah, seeking clues for the backstory. They find a mention of Amalek’s origins in Genesis, chapter 36, a chapter devoted entirely to enumerating the descendants of Esau. It is one of those sections of the Torah that is numbing in its endless lists of names, but the rabbis pull out from it a deep and challenging story. The Torah relates that, Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz, Esau’s son. She bore Amalek to Eliphaz. (Gen 36:12) So, Eliphaz is Jacob’s nephew. The rabbis tell:

Timna was a royal princess, as it is written, alluf Timna, (Gen. 36:40) and by alluf an uncrowned ruler is meant. Desiring to join the Jewish people, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, ‘I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.’ From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? — Because they should not have repulsed her. (Tractate Sanhedrin 99b)

This is not a comprehensive explanation of the roots of enmity and evil, but it is a piercing one: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob rejected Timna, who sincerely wanted to join their faith. Out of her pain Timna produced Amalek. That is to say, we planted the seeds that ultimately became our enemy, because we did not embrace Timna’s desire to be accepted by us. The simmering resentment of being rejected without cause led to the emergence of the force of Amalek into the world. The rabbis insist that we ponder the possibility that we helped to create our own enemy, that when we do not see the genuine longing of the other to be accepted by us, we are once again missing their humanity and thereby opening the possibility of endless misunderstanding and conflict. As Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught, “Not only are Jews commanded to wipe out Amalek the descendant of Esau, but each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart.”

Still, We have not answered why this passage about Amalek is read just before Purim. What does Amalek have to do with Purim? The answer is: everything. In the Book of Esther, Haman is pointedly identified as a descendant of Amalek. He is introduced in the megillah as Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite – Agag being the king of Amalek that we meet in the Book of Samuel. In that story, King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin is instructed by the Prophet Samuel to utterly destroy Amalek, and Saul fails to do so. Amalek lives on. In fact, in the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai is introduced as a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin, connecting him to King Saul. Thus, the eternal battle between the Jewish People and Amalek reaches its climax in the Purim story. Will Amalek – Haman – finally be eradicated? Mordechai will not bow down to Haman, not because Jews don’t bow down to potentates – The Torah commands us not to bow to false gods, but says nothing about bowing down to rulers – but because Mordechai as a Jew will not bow down before evil! Modern readers often cringe when reading the gory battle that concludes the Book of Esther. But Esther is not an historical event – it is a fantasy, a fairy tale, a wish-fulfillment of the ultimate triumph over the forces of darkness and evil. On Purim we thumb our noses at the abuse of power that never seems to leave our world. For one delirious day, Amalek’s reign of terror is finally brought to a close. After Haman’s defeat,

Mordechai left the king’s presence wearing a royal garment of blue and white, a large golden crown, and a shawl of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan celebrated and rejoiced. And for the Jews there was light and happiness, joy and honor… And Queen Esther and Mordechai the Jew wrote about the enormity of these events, and established the holiday of Purim, never to be abolished! (Esther 8:15-16, 9:29)

So let us all dream of the day when the forces of Amalek are abroad in our land no more. And in the meantime, let’s blow off some steam and have a good laugh on Purim, so that we can keep our sense of humor and keep fighting the good fight without succumbing to despair. Lord knows we can use an opportunity to lighten up right now, and Purim is here in the nick of time!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,

Rabbi Jonathan