There’s a story told about a rabbi who was counselling a man in his congregation. The rabbi advised that it was time to start thinking about the hereafter. The congregant said, “No problem, Rabbi, I do that all the time. I walk upstairs and then I think, now what am I here after?”
Shabbat Zakhor is a communal reminder of what we are all here after. On the surface, on Shabbat Zakhor we remember the times that the Jewish people suffered because other nations preyed upon our vulnerabilities. If we dig deeper in the text, however, we find that Zakhor is as much directed at our own behavior as a community as those of other people. The special maftir reading is from Deuteronomy 25:17-19. We are reminded of the wicked machinations of Amalek who attacked the Israelites from behind, preying on the weakest and most vulnerable members of the society. The full text is as follows:
17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 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. 19Therefore, 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!
We read this section on the Shabbat prior to Purim because Haman of the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek and is therefore an archetype of evil. The great irony of the Amalek portion is that we are told simultaneously to remember Amalek AND to blot out the name of Amalek.
There is another odd feature of the Amalek portion. There is ambiguity regarding the phrase in verse 18, v’lo yirei Elohim. The New Jewish Publication Society translation moves this phrase from the end of the sentence to the beginning and says: “[H]ow, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down the stragglers in your rear. The merit of this translation is that it makes clear that the wicked Amalek lacks fear of God, another way of saying they have no common decency. On the other hand, there’s a problem. Another way of reading verse 18, based on the actual phrasing in the Hebrew is: “And you were tired and weary and did not fear God.”
In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to read the text in a way that says the Israelites did not fear God! How can this be? Was it that the stragglers lost faith, thus becoming vulnerable to Amalek? What kind of God would allow such a thing? Furthermore, the command is to remember what Amalek “did to you,” and we get the sense that the concern is not only external—a cowardly attack on the weakest Israelites—but also internal. Our sages have long intuited that Amalek represents, yetzer ha’ra, internal corruption. The verses just before this passage in Deuteronomy 25 speak about unethical business practices—the keeping of uneven weights by merchants, which is an “abomination to the Lord.” The juxtaposition implies that it was our own corruption that made us susceptible to attack. Amalek is the evil inclination, and when we allow its voice to control our conduct, we cheat others and become worthy of attack. If we look back to Exodus 17, the original narrative of Amalek’s attack is preceded by the complaints of Israel, who said, “is the Lord in our midst or not?” In both places internal discord leads to external disaster. This is hardly a coincidence.
We know that there are people in the world who have evil in their hearts and who do not fear God. To a large extent, their moral compass (or lack thereof) is out of our control. What we do control is ourselves and our actions. There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world of which Amalek may be an archetype. In response, we can actively choose to behave in a way befitting people who fear God.
What was true of ancient Israel is true of modern Israel, and also of America. There are very real external enemies such as ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the waves of lone wolf terrorists in Israel who have carried out savage stabbing attacks in Israel. We remember Taylor Force, an American business student at Vanderbilt, who was stabbed to death in Jaffa. Our community and our country must be strong, vigilant and brave in facing and fighting these real external threats.
At the same time, I am gravely concerned about the danger to both Israel and to America that comes from within. When we abandon our better selves and give in to fear, anger and hatred, then we become weak and unworthy. The recent Pew study of Israel shows that a majority of self-identified religious Jews wish to “transfer” Arabs out of the country. This, I believe, would be a betrayal of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and of the democratic nature of the State. Likewise, I am deeply concerned about the political atmosphere in America. Our political system has been ugly and mean-spirited for years, but never before have we seen blatant calls by a major candidate for President to incite mob violence against his detractors. Until now. Our democracy thrives on disagreement and spirited debate over issues of substance. Without these basic pillars, democracy crumbles.
When we remember Amalek, we not only remember Amalek’s attack, we remember the response of the Israelites to this disaster. At least according to one reading of the text, the response was less than satisfactory. It made the disaster worse instead of less severe. Zakhor et asher asa lekha Amalek, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” rings true today. It’s not just the physical attack, but also the osmosis of Amalek-like thinking into the psyche of the Israelites that dehumanized the most marginal members of their society at the time of their greatest need. Shabbat Zakhor is an annual check-in for us. It’s a reminder of what we’re “here after.” Let us resolve this Shabbat Zakhor, that we will not marginalize others and strive to bring healing and kindness to our community. May our renewed resolve usher in a joyous Purim.