Amalek Inside–Zakhor 5776

It is considered a mitzvah this Shabbat for every Jew to “remember what Amalek did to you,” to blot out the memory of Amalek, and not to forget. This mitzvah is easily fulfilled by listening to the maftir reading in synagogue on the Shabbat before Purim, but it is not at all easy to understand the passage that we will read. 

First of all, the commandment is self-contradictory. If we were not so intent on remembering Amalek, then its name would be long forgotten. How can you blot out a memory that you constantly recall?

Second 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, then we cheat others and become worthy of attack. If we look back to Exodus 17, 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.

If you read Deut 25:28 closely you will notice something strange that has bothered Jewish exegetes for millennia. The verse is convoluted—speaking of Amalek, it says “he tailed you and those that trailed you—and you were weary and tired—and did not fear God.” What is the contextual meaning or peshat of this verse? Who exactly did not fear God? The verse seems to be speaking of Amalek, with Israel mentioned parenthetically in the middle. In that case, Amalek did not fear God. But the focus shifts to Israel’s exhaustion in the middle, and the phrase “did not fear God” follows that. This would imply that it was Israel that did not fear God.

Our early midrashim vacillate about the subject of the phrase “and did not fear God.” As Midrash Tannaim says, “this is Amalek; others say this is Israel, who were lacking in mitzvot that would give them the merit to be redeemed.” Mekhilta D’ Rabbi Ishmael also gives both possibilities, though Sifre BeMidbar says that Israel was weary, and Amalek alone was evil.

Among the meforshim we also see it both ways. Rashi says that the Israelite stragglers were the wicked ones—they got ejected by the protective cloud and then picked off by Amalek. Ibn Ezra’s gives a grammatical defense of Israel—the expression “did not fear God” must return to the main subject of the sentence, the attack of Amalek. But Hizkuni cites Mekhilta’s theory that it was Israel itself that did not fear God, and thus became susceptible to attack. I once read a midrash that blamed the leaders of Israel for setting too fast a pace on the flight from Egypt. They kept marching even as the old and infirm fell behind, and it was this lack of social solidarity which exposed Israel to danger, and allowed Amalek to kill so many. 

So which is true—is the evil from without or from within? As with so many binaries, this one appears to be false. Yes, there are real external enemies in the world. Haters who are going to hate, and killers that are going to kill. We must not be naïve and assume that we can “make peace” when others are intent on war. As Psalm 120 says, “I am for peace but when I speak, they are for war.” This dynamic does indeed exist and we must not delude ourselves into thinking that the world will be kind if only Israel will be non-confrontational. And yet, there is also great truth to the theory that internal corruption leads to external calamity. Whether it was the bickering of Exodus, the corrupt business practices described by Deuteronomy, or perhaps the insensitive and non-inclusive leadership that left parts of the community trailing behind in the dust—in each of these theories or in all of them combined, Israel weakened itself morally. When the spirit was defeated, then so too was the body. Amalek in this reading is not only a military foe, but a spiritual condition. It is the triumph of the evil inclination and the loss of personal virtue. Once virtue is gone, so too is victory.

What was true of ancient Israel is true of modern Israel, and also of America. There are very real external enemies—ISIS is no fantasy—who are all too eager to murder, rape and enslave anyone who stands in their way. We must be strong, vigilant and brave in facing such threats. But the greater danger to both Israel and to America 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 “religious” Jews wish to “ transfer” Arabs out of the country. This would be a betrayal of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and of the democratic nature of the State. Likewise, many of us are deeply concerned about developments in the political sphere in America, in which a front runner for president is employing classic demagoguery to attract a mob of mean-spirited and malevolent followers. It is possible that he will yet moderate his rhetoric, but it won’t happen without serious and sustained critical attention. 

The danger of Amalek lies within—it is what Amalek does to us, when we become like our worst enemies, paranoid, hateful and violent. This is what we need to remember—not to become like Amalek, to blot out that aspect of ourselves, and to become reverent of God—of the good, the compassionate and the holy aspect of life. Once we restore the balance of virtue in our own community we will be strong and worthy. An America that is confident and humble, compassionate and just, is an America that can be good and strong. As one slogan put it, “Make America Good Again”—it is our duty as Jews and as Americans (most of us anyhow) to be guardians of virtue, and thus of our long-term security.

 שמות פרק יז, זח

(ז) וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם מַסָּה וּמְרִיבָה עַל רִיב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל נַסֹּתָם אֶת יְקֹוָק לֵאמֹר הֲיֵשׁ יְקֹוָק בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ אִם אָיִן: פ (ח) וַיָּבֹא עֲמָלֵק וַיִּלָּחֶם עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּרְפִידִם:

      דברים פרק כה, יגיט

יג) לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּכִיסְךָ אֶבֶן וָאָבֶן גְּדוֹלָה וּקְטַנָּה: ס (יד) לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּבֵיתְךָ אֵיפָה וְאֵיפָה גְּדוֹלָה וּקְטַנָּה: (טו) אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה לָּךְ אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה לָּךְ לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ: (טז) כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ כָּל עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה כֹּל עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל: פ (יז) זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם: (יח) אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִים: (יט) וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח: פ

מדרש תנאים לדברים פרק כה פסוק יח

ולא ירא אלהים זה עמלק: אחרים אומאלו ישראל שלא היה בידם מצות שיגאלו שנ‘ (שם) ויקרא שם המקום מסה ומריבה מה הוא אומר (שם ח) ויבא עמלק:

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח מסכתא דעמלק פרשה א דה ויבא עמלק

אחרים אומרים ולא ירא אלהים אלו ישראל שלא היו בידם מצות.

ספרי במדבר פרשת בהעלותך פיסקא פח דה אין כל

כיוצא בו אתה אומר ואתה עיף ויגע (דברים כה יח) על ישראל הוא אומר ואתה עיף ויגע ועל עמלק הוא אומר ולא ירא אלהים (שם /דברים כה יח/)

רשי דברים פרשת כי תצא פרק כה פסוק יח

כל הנחשלים אחריך חסרי כחכ מחמת חטאם,ל שהיה הענן פולטן:

אבן עזרא דברים פרשת כי תצא פרק כה פסוק יח

ולא ירא שב אל עמלק, והוא פעל עבר, כמו כי כבד ממך (שמות יח, יח), כי זקן יצחק (בראכז, א), כאשר אהב (שם שם, ט):

חזקוני דברים פרשת כי תצא פרק כה פסוק יח

לא ירא אלקים, כדאיתא במכילתא אחרים אומרים ולא ירא אלוקים אלו ישראל שהיו בהם מצוות ולא קיימום אבל אם הייתם יראי אלוקים לא היה יכול לך.

דעת זקנים מבעלי התוספות דברים פרשת כי תצא פרק כה פסוק יח

ולא ירא אלהים. במשקולות לכך נסמך לפלא יהיה לך בביתך וגולפי שלא קיימו מורא דמשקולות דכתיב בהו ויראת מאלהיך לכך בא עמלק וזשה מאזני מרמה תועבת הוגווכתיב בתריה בא זדון ויבא קלון. וגם כאן כתיב כי תועבת הכל עושה אלה:

תהלים פרק קכ, ז

(ז) אֲנִי שָׁלוֹם וְכִי אֲדַבֵּר הֵמָּה לַמִּלְחָמָה: