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Thoughts on Shabbat Zachor

As we move into the month of Adar, we mark this Shabbat the second of the four special shabbatot during the late winter and early spring season.  Shabbat Shekalim was observed on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh Adar, two weeks ago and now this week, as we prepare for the holiday of Purim, we observe Shabbat Zachor.  As on the other three special shabbatot, we will take out a second Torah scroll for the maftir this week and the regular haftarah for Tetzaveh, the parashat hashavua, will be replaced by a special haftarah.  In each of these readings as well as on the morning of Purim, the central figure is Amalek.


Amalek first appears in the genealogy of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob.  He is a son of Esau’s firstborn Eliphaz, who we’re told was brought up under the tutelage of his grandfather Isaac.  Amalek’s mother, Timna, was a concubine of Eliphaz, according to the Midrash, as recounted in Ginzberg’s “Legends of the Jews,” she was “a princess of royal blood, who had asked to be received into the faith of Abraham and his family, but they all, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had rejected her, and she said, ‘Rather will I be a maid-servant unto the dregs of this nation, than mistress of another nation,’ and so she was willing to be concubine to Eliphaz.  To punish the Patriarchs for the affront, they had offered her, she was made the mother of Amalek, who inflicted great injury upon Israel.”  Rashi explains that while Timna appears in the genealogy of the chieftains of Seir, the nation that Esau/Edom replaced, her background is rather “blemished” to say the least. In a footnote in Kaplan’s “Living Torah,” we read that “According to Talmudic tradition, Eliphaz fathered Timna by committing adultery with Seir’s wife, and he then married her.” Kaplan does note that others suggest that maybe the rabbis are mixing up two different women with the same name. This strange background may explain why the patriarchs, at least midrashically, were reluctant to have dealingswith her. Her rejection by them, though, may perhaps have led to Amalek’s resentment of the Jewish people.


Regardless of these legends and midrashim about Amalek’s purported background, the nation that sprang from him is first encountered as the Israelites come forth from Egypt.  As we recall, the people ran into a number of challenges in their wanderings in the wilderness.  In spite of various miraculous interventions by God, they continued to complain and attack Moses whenever they ran into these problems.  Just before the incident with Amalek, we find the people encamped at a place called Rephidim. (I spent a few hours there nearly 50 years ago as a student, waiting for a lift to an Israeli military outpost near the Suez Canal, where I was supposed to lead a Passover sederin 1974.)  In Moses’s day, the people could find no water there and complained bitterly to Moses once again.  This is where God commanded him to take his rod and strike a rock, out of which water would come pouring to provide drink for the people.


It was right at the same place, perhaps while Moses was still busy with this rock, that out of nowhere the Amalekites show up.  For no apparent reason, they attack the Israelites.  When the event is recalled in Deuteronomy, in the brief passage that we will read from the second scroll on Shabbat, we are informed that the Amalekites purposely attacked from the rear, perhaps some distance from the Israelite leadership.  The Torah tells us that the Israelites were tired and exhausted, that the attackersparticularly targeted those who were lagging in the back of the line of march.  The biblical author notes that these people did not fear God.  Some commentators suggest that this nomadic tribe resented the fact that the Israelites, had shown up in a place that they considered their territory and when water was discovered by Moses at this location, they heard about it, and wanted to take it over for their own purposes.  Be that as it may, this unprovoked attack was met by a force of Israelites under the leadership of Joshua, defeated and sent back into the desert.


At the end of this story of the attack, God says to Moses, “Write this as a reminder (zikaron) in the Book and repeat it carefully to Joshua.  I will totally obliterate the memory (zecher) of Amalek from under the heavens.  Moses built an altar and he named it, Adonay Nisi, God is my banner. He said (taking an oath), The Hand is on God’s throne.  God shall be at war with Amalek for all generations.”  We read these nine verses on Purim day as the designated Torah reading for the holiday.


Amalek does show up again during this period of wanderings, after the incident of the spy mission, when as a punishment for their lack of faith and their acceptance of the evil report of the spies that the people of the land of Canaan are just too mighty for them to conquer, the Israelites are condemned to wander for forty years in the wilderness.  Once that decree comes down, the people defiantly attempt to enter the land anyway and are pushed back by a band of Canaanites and Amalekites who lived in the area.  As mentioned in my essay a few weeks back on the verses that appear after the Alenu, the rabbis embellish the brief mention of a Canaanite attack by the King of Arad after the death of Aaron, a bit later in the Book of Numbers, by claiming that these so-called Canaanites were in fact Amalekites, who disguised themselves and carried off some Israelites as captivesat that time.


Clearly there is no love lost between Israel and Amalek, so we will read on Shabbat the portion that begins with that word Zachor, Remember, in Deuteronomy, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt.”  A commandment is laid down, that once you are at peace from all your enemies, God commands, “Timcheh et Zecher Amalek, obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.  You must not forget.” There is some discussion among the rabbis as to what this mitzvah entails.  Is it calling for action or simply for remembrance?  In the days of King Saul, in the haftarah that we will read this Shabbat, clearly the prophet Samuel calls for drastic action, the total annihilation of the Amalekites and destruction of all their property.  In our day, and through most of Jewish history, the mitzvah is seen as primarily one of remembrance and thus this reading from the second scroll is considered the fulfillment of the mitzvah to remember Amalek; the actual obliteration is left to God.  Of course, there is some question about whether one needs to read these words from the Torah with a minyan present in order to fulfill the commandment. Some wonder whether one can simply fulfill this mitzvah by privately reading this passage any time during the year or must it be only on this shabbat prior to the holiday of Purim, read directly from the Torah?  These four special shabbatot already were observed in the days of the Mishnah, one finds them designated in the Mishnah of Megillah.  In the Talmudic discussion on that mishnah, there is some question as to whether these special readings should be done on the Shabbat before or after Purim when Purim falls on a Friday.  The ultimate ruling is that we always read the portion of Zachor prior to the observance of Purim.  


As mentioned, the haftarah takes us to the days of King Saul, the first king of Israel, anointed somewhat reluctantly by the last of the judges and the first of the prophets of that era, Samuel.  He conveys to Saul this message from God.  “I remember what Amalek did to Israel, waylaying him when he came up from Egypt.  Now go and strike down Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”  It is a rather appalling commandment to us moderns, but not the only time we find such a drastic decree laid down in that period of ancient warfare. When we realize that the attack in Moses’s day took place at least two or three centuries before the anointing of Saul, one wonders what connection the Amalekites of his day have to those ancient enemies.  Is it fair or just to attack the descendants of one’s enemies as if they were the same people of an earlier time?  Saul doesn’t seem to have a problem with this question even though he ultimately fails to complete the task.  He spares the king, a man named Agag, (remember that name) and sets aside the best of the cattle and sheep, intending to offer them as a sacrifice to God.


God tells Samuel that He regrets making Saul king because he has failed to fulfill the divine commandment in this instance.  Samuel arrives on the scene and hears the bleating of sheep andwhen he questions the king, Saul blames the failure to destroy these animals on the people who wanted to use them for sacrifice to God.  Samuel condemns this failure of leadership on Saul’s part and pointedly says that God does not desire sacrifice as much as He wants obedience. “Because you have rejected God’s word, He has also rejected you from being king.”  Saul seeks forgiveness for his failure, but Samuel is adamant; he will anoint another person to be king in place of Saul.  Coming across the Amalekite king, Agag, Samuel takes a sword and cuts him to pieces.


What does all of this have to do with Purim?  It seems that as the centuries pass, and indeed, the Purim story takes place some fivecenturies later, Amalek is transformed from a rogue nation to a concept.  Amalek represents all those who have no fear of God and wantonly attack others, particularly, in our context, the Jewish people, for no discernible reason and thus they deserve to be blotted out of history.  In the Megillah, the arch-villain is Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite.  What’s an Agagite?  It must be a latter-day descendant of that king cut to ribbons by the zealot Samuel.  Haman represents Amalek and thus it is not sufficient to destroy him, but at the end of the Megillah, Esther makes sure that the ten sons of Haman join himand are impaled on stakes next to their father.  Evil must be utterly wiped out.  To complete the picture, we ask, who are Mordecai and Esther?  They are identified as coming from the tribe of Benjamin, Saul’s home tribe and when we read the genealogy of Mordecai, among the names is the familiar name of Saul’s father, Kish, as well as the name Shimei, who is identified as a member of Saul’s clan as well who had a rather equivocal relationship with King David.  It seems that these names have remained in the lineage of Mordecai centuries later from that earlier period.  Thus we may be justified in believing that Mordecai and his cousin Esther were part of the royal family of King Saul, setting up in the Megillah a rematch between Amalek and the family of Saul.  Having identified Haman as Amalek incarnate, every time his name comes up in the scroll of Esther we take our graggers and fulfill the mitzvah of blotting out the name of Amalek from beneath the heavens. That’s the symbolism.  Zachor, we are to remember.


As one reviews the history of our people through the ages, Amalek seems to be ever present, ever ready to attack, to destroy, to annihilate our people.  As we say in the Passover Haggadah, “In every generation they arise to destroy us” yet our faith in God’s divine protection remains strong, “the Holy Blessed One saves us from their hand.”  In the book of Numbers, the rabbis see Amalek disguising himself as a Canaanite.  He continues to disguise himself in every generation in new ways, but always with the same vicious intent.  God too has His disguises. When asked where Esther appears in the Torah, the sages reply, look in Deuteronomy where God warns us that in time to come “Anochi haster astir panay,” I will indeed hide my face, astir, esther.  In the Megillah, God’s name is not mentioned, His face is hidden, yet His presence is felt.


Last weekend, we heard rumors of Amalek once more, as alerts were disseminated by Jewish defense organizations and police departments throughout the country of plans discussed by various hate groups online for a “Day of Hate,” directedprimarily toward the Jews and, no doubt, toward others as well. Because of our history we need to take such threats seriously even when they do not materialize as was the case this time. Life goes on, we cannot live in constant fear, but we continue to be alert, to know that Amalek still lurks in the shadows waiting for an opportunity to act on this baseless hatred that continues through the centuries.


Both our Jewish tradition as well as that of our Christian neighbors emphasize the primacy of love over hate.  Jesus points to two commandments in the Torah that are fundamental not only to Judaism, but to his teachings as well, the commandment in Deuteronomy to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might as well as the commandment in Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself.  Rabbi Akiva, the great second century teacher, points to the same commandments as fundamental while his colleague Ben Azzai goes beyond that to a verse in Genesis which links the love of God to the love of our neighbor, a verse which reminds us that we all were created in the divine image. When we are able to recognize that divine image in all people, that image often hidden behind the masks we wear in public, we blot out the memory of Amalek from the world and bring about a world of peace, harmony and love.  

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