Remember What Amalek Did To You
The Shabbat before Purim is known as Parshat Zachor (Remember!), based on the additional Torah reading of the day (Deuteronomy 25):
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt—
how undeterred by fear of God, they surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.
Therefore, when your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
This is a command to wreak vengeance upon the nation of Amalek for blindsiding us just after we managed to escape from slavery in Egypt. This would be our obligation when Israel would have the military strength to manage such an attack.
Why do we read this right before Purim? Our three protagonists, Mordechai, Esther, and Haman, are the inheritors of this decree.
The first king of Israel, Saul, was the first person with the wherewithal to fulfill the mitzvah of Zachor. Even though he lived almost three hundred years after Amalek attacked Israel, he amassed an army and decimated the people of Amalek. Feeling pity for the King of Amalek, Agog, he let him live. Agog’s descendants survived, carrying a vow of vengeance as well.
When we meet Haman, he’s introduced as Haman, the son of Hamidatha, the Agogite. Should it be a surprise to us when Haman learns that the one refusing to bow down to him is a Jew, that he swears to wipe out all of the Jews?
Mordechai and Esther are descendants of King Saul. This is most likely the reason Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman in the first place – Haman’s existence represents his forefather’s failure.
Carrying on the cycle of revenge, Haman plans to annihilate the Jews, but in the end, he and his ten sons are hung, and tens of thousands of enemies of the Jews are killed.
What if there hadn’t been a command of vengeance? Saul could have concentrated on domestic affairs, and the people of Amalek would have lived on, perhaps viewing their ancient attack upon us as a mistake of the past. Case closed.
As Jews loyal to ritual law, on Shabbat we read the parsha commanding us to remember what happened and to wipe out Amalek. Yet, I prefer to modify our edition of Zachor.
I see it embodied in the post-Holocaust mantra – “Never Again.” Never again will we allow ourselves to be so weak, to be sheep to slaughter. Moreover, never again will we allow what happened to us to happen to others. Just as in the Nazi era when we hoped others would protest antisemitism and genocide, so will we protest all forms of racism and genocide. Just as we yearned for individuals to save us during the Shoah, we will also put ourselves out to rescue others.
Before Purim, we are commanded to remember. Let’s remember to let go of grudges and cycles of violence, and to embrace and stand up for all people’s humanity. Then we’ll truly have reason to celebrate.