I was recently honored by being asked to give a little talk about this Shabbat’s Torah portion to a minyan that I participate in. I thought my blog readers would find it interesting, too.
Since this is the week before Purim, there is a special maftir from Deuteronomy, one that is highly relevant to our situation today:
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” – Deut. 25, 17-19
Amalek appears throughout the Tanach, always the bitterest enemy of the Jewish people. Amalek fought against Moses, Saul and David, often apparently destroyed, but always coming back to fight again. Haman was said to be a descendent of Amalek, and more recently so have Hitler and Ahmadinejad.
Historically there may have been Amalekites, but it’s not clear that the various biblical references relate to a single people. Probably not. But the concept of an Enemy is a natural one, an antithesis to the concept of a People.
Perhaps you can’t really define a people without also defining its enemies. Certainly many believe that if the Jews could get rid of the idea of peoplehood, then they wouldn’t have enemies. Shimon Peres likes to refer approvingly to “world citizenship,” as though it is an antidote to endless war with Amalek. In his 1993 book “The New Middle East,” he wrote that “In Western Europe, particularist nationalism is fading and the idea of ‘citizen of the world’ is taking hold,” and “The entire idea of the small national state – the Jewish state included – has collapsed …”
The experience of the 19th century assimilationists and post-Oslo Israel tells us that this strategy doesn’t work in the real world. Even if we refuse to remember Amalek, he remembers us. And if we don’t have the support of self-conscious peoplehood (and its concrete representation, the Jewish state), how can we fight him?
The Book of Commandments (ספר המצוות) lists three commandments related to Amalek:
- To remember Amalek (a positive commandment)
- Not to forget Amalek (a negative one)
- To destroy Amalek completely (the commandment Saul violated when he allowed Agag to live)
There are various explanations for the difference between 1 and 2 above. I like this one: 1 says that we must remember that we have enemies today who wish to destroy us. And 2 tells us not to drop our guard tomorrow – this situation is not going to change. As the quotation from Deuteronomy indicates, we must not forget Amalek, even when the Jewish people are sovereign in the land of Israel (this seems to be the part Shimon Peres doesn’t get).
What does it mean that we are required to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven?” It cannot mean that we are required, like Saul, to exterminate a tribe. Even if there was at some time a distinct tribe of Amalek, it has long since disappeared as a distinct population. For this reason the rabbis warned us not to take this commandment literally.
I think – and it is appropriate that we are reading this parsha during Israel Apartheid Week – that what we are required to “blot out” are the false narratives of our enemies: the stories that they tell about the ‘crimes‘ of the Jewish people and Israel, including but not limited to
- Causing the Plague
- Making matza from human blood
- Controlling international finance and media
- Dispossessing Arabs and stealing their land
- Killing Mohammad Dura
- Committing war crimes in Gaza
- Imposing an apartheid regime
Our enemies today attack the Jewish people violently when they can, but they are not strong enough by themselves to damage us severely. Today’s Amalekite strategy is to bit by bit assassinate the truth about us, to create an image of an evil people in illegitimate possession of the land, in order to create a coalition that at best will stand by when we are assaulted and at worst actively prevent us from defending ourselves.
To summarize, here is how I would interpret the commandments relating to Amalek today:
- Always be vigilant and prepared
- Don’t be fooled by visions of peace through surrender
- Tell our story loudly and fight the false narratives