This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Zakhor when, as a lead up to Purim, we read about the mitzvah to remember Amalek:
Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt…. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies… that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it. (Devarim 25:17,19)
Three mitzvot: One, remember. Two, do not forget. And three, sandwiched in between – you shall blot out their memory. Kill them, wipe them out. What possible message can we learn from this mitzvah?
God is a vengeful God. Violence must be met with violence. Even innocents – the infants and the future descendants of the original nation – can be slaughtered by the hand of Israel when Israel is following God’s command and is the agent of God’s justice. Is this the message of Amalek? Is this the story that we tell?
We know that it is not. It is not the story that we as a people have told. Having as a people been persecuted and slaughtered in the name of religion, and as witness today to the evils that can be perpetrated by a murderous, fundamentalist religious belief – this also is not the story that we can ever tell.
The mitzvah to blot out the memory of Amalek is surrounded by two other mitzvot, two mitzvot of memory. Zakhor, remember, and lo tishkach, do not forget. The latter, according to the Rabbis, is a command to remember in our hearts, whereas the former is a command to verbalize that memory, a mitzvah to tell a story. How do we live up to these obligations? What is the story we choose to tell and what is the story we choose to remember?
It is a story, first and foremost, of moral grappling, of a people who treasure the sanctity of human life, and who believe in a God who commands them to preserve human life. It is the story of a people who can only be confounded by such a command.
The Talmud gives voice to this struggle through the mouth of King Shaul. Says the Talmud in Yoma 22b:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Saul: Now go and smite Amalek, he said: If on account of one person the Torah said: Perform the ceremony of the heifer whose neck is to be broken, how much more [ought consideration to be given] to all these persons! And if human beings sinned, what has the cattle committed? and if the adults have sinned, what have the little ones done?
Where is the justice in God’s decree? Such a command violates God’s own treasuring of human lives, and the most fundamental sense of justice, says Shaul. And the Talmud gives no answer to this challenge.
This grappling echoes throughout the generations. It can be heard in the words of the great Chasidic rabbi and posek, Rav Avraham Bornstein of Sochachov (1839-1910), who states that the punishment cannot be just because the Torah teaches that children do not suffer for the sins of their father (Avnei Nezer, Orah Hayyim, 508).
It can be heard in the words of Rav Yakov Chayim Sofer of Bagdad (1870-1939) who writes in his halakhic magnum opus the Caf HaChayim that we made no brakhawhen we do the mitzvah of remembering Amalek, because how could we make a blessing over the story of the destruction of God’s creatures? And this he says about a mitzvah that God has commanded!
It is a story of a grappling, yes, but not one that leads to resignation or rejection, but to transformation. It is a story about how Amalek stops being a people whom we must physically destroy, and instead becomes a symbol, an idea, that we must fight against, peacefully and without violence.
This story can be heard in the words of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who states that we must destroy not Amalek, but zekher Amalek, the glorifying of all they stood for. This is a mitzvah about opposing the sword, not wielding it. Amalek represents a culture that valorizes violence and the sword. Such a culture is pernicious for the moral future of mankind, and it is such a culture, not a people, which must be wiped out and obliterated.
This story can be heard in the writings of all those halakhic authorities who, through various halakhic devices, make the mitzvah to destroy Amalek effectively moot. From Rambam’s claim that if they accept the Noachide laws they are not to be destroyed, to the consensus amongst poskim that such a people can no longer be identified, the practical implications of this mitzvah have effectively been erased and blotted out.
It is a story of moving from the passage in Devarim, from the charge of timche – thatyou shall blot out – to the passage in Shemot, and the declaration of macho emche, that I, God, will blot out. It is the transferring of the war, from B’nei Yisrael to God. Milchama laHashem bi’Amalek, a war of God against Amalek. Midor dor. The story that we have chosen to tell, from generation to generation, is the story of Shemot, the story of God’s war, not of ours. The story of a war not against a people, but against violence, against evil.
We are truly an amazing people. We have taken the mitzvah to destroy Amalek, amitzvah that disrupts our moral and religious order, a mitzvah that embraces violence and, through interpretation, through choosing how we will tell the story, we have transformed it into a mitzvah of memory, a mandate to restore moral order and to repudiate violence.
This is not just a story about the mitzvah of Amalek. It is the story of the brit that we made with God at the foot of Mount Sinai. At that moment, we moved from being passive recipients of the Divine command, from having the mountain suspended over our heads, to becoming parties in a brit, active participants in the reception, interpretation, and application of God’s Torah.
We have one God and one Torah, but our Torah has many mitzvot, and many potentially conflicting messages. How do we engage our Torah. What messages do we prioritize?
When we tell the story of the Akeida do we tell the beginning of the story, or the end? Do we tell the story that one must be prepared to commit murder in the name of God, or do we tell the story of the angel’s intervention, the story that God will never – in the end – command us to do such a heinous act? Do we, in the words of Dr. David Shatz, tell the story of the Akeida or the story of Al Qaeda?
The translation of the Written Torah into halakha happens through the Oral Torah. This process transforms an intense passion and a lofty idealism into a day-to-day way to live one’s life. It transforms a passion that could lead to a fundamentalist extremism into an attention to detail, an anchoring in the real world, and a sense of responsibility to people and relationships.
The story of Amalek, then, is the story of the Oral Torah. It is, in fact, a Purim story.Kiymu vi’kiblu ha’Yehudim, the Jews reaccepted – according to the Rabbis – what they had already accepted in the past. The freely accepted the Torah, at a time of exile, at a time when God’s commanding presence was less felt, in a way that they could never have accepted it in the past when the mountain was suspended over their heads. Our acceptance of Torah today, when so many alternative interpretations of reality are available, is predicated on our choice, on our being full partners in the brit. And with great choice comes great responsibility.
We must embrace our role as partners in the enterprise of Torah, as part of the process that is the Oral Torah. We must be scrupulous to work within the parameters of cannon, precedence, and authority, the weight of the text, and the weight of our history. And we must be conscientious of our responsibility to the deeper values of the Torah, to the story that we are choosing to tell, to our role in this covenant.
As partners in the covenant, we will choose to hear the voices that resonate with our deepest sense of probity and morality, which we believe to reflect the Torah’s deepest sense of morality and of justice. But we cannot lose sight that there are others who hear other voices. Others for whom the fundamentalist and extremist voices are the most attractive. Others who are more prepared to hear the mitzvah ofmechiya and milchama, of war and destruction. Others who will tell a very different story from the one that we would tell.
Remember. Do not forget. We have a responsibility of memory and a responsibility of speech and of story. We, each one of us, will choose the story that we will tell.
Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameiach!