Jews are used to being told to live with contradictions, but it is hard to think of one quite so blatant, so difficult, as in the special reading that we leined this shabbat morning for Parshat Zachor:
זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth out of Egypt;
תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם
You shall erase the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven
Maimonides, in the Laws of Kings puts it as follows:
מצות עשה לאבד זכר עמלק שנאמר תמחה את זכר עמלק ומצות עשה לזכור תמיד מעשיו הרעים
There is a positive commandment to destroy the memory of Amalek […] and a positive commandment to constantly remember their wicked deeds.
So which is it? Are we supposed to remember, or to erase the memory?
And before we try and answer the question, lets broaden it. When a student at Yeshiva University wrote an article entitled “Why it’s Time for Jews to Get Over the Holocaust” in which he wrote the following, was he correct?
“Modern Jews have taken it upon themselves to make sure that the memory of the Holocaust remains forever fresh. It’s about time they stopped.”
He caused an outpouring of anger, but does he have a point (even if clumsily made)?
How do we live Jewish lives not burdened by persecution? Can we,should we, live in the sunlight?
In “What we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank”, Nathan Englander discusses the concept of never forgetting, of asking about every gentile one meets: “Would this one save us, would this one shelter us?”
Do we construct a Jewish identity, a self-image, based on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust? Is our message to the next generation “Live as Jews because so many were killed for being Jews?” Is that a compelling argument, or an unacceptable burdening of guilt, a robbing of innocence?
So what is it supposed to be?
Zachor or timcheh? Remember or erase memory?
I want to explain what the mitzvah to destroy Amalek involves.
From a grammatical point of view it seems that the zecher Amalek, is an association. Technically, “timcheh et zecher amalek” means “destroy the things associated with Amalek”. Not only the people, but also, the animals, the possessions, anything that invokes, or that can be associated with, having to be to do with Amalek.
And, indeed, whenever the moral challenge of this mitzvah is pointed out, often an important fact is omitted. It is the view of the Rambam, Maimonides, that the mitzvah of obliterating Amalek is not about genocide, rather it is about reform.
Again in the Laws of Kings we find his ruling:
אין עושין מלחמה עם אדם בעולם עד שקוראין לו שלום
One does not wage war on anyone until we first offer them peace.
And he goes on to apply this rule explicityly to the nation of Amalek
כן הוא אומר בעמלק תמחה את זכר עמלק. ומנין שאינו מדבר אלא באלו שלא השלימו שנאמר לא היתה עיר אשר השלימה אל בני ישראל
So it says regarding Amalek : “Erase the memory of Amalek”. And from where do we know that this applies only to those who do not make peace with us […].
But how can this be sustained when the Torah itself says destroy Amalek? That the mitzvah is conditional, that a peace treaty is also a possibility?
The Kesef Mishnah, Rav Yosef Caro (also the author of the Shulchan Aruch) explains Maimonides ruling:
שאם קבלו עליהם שבע מצות הרי יצאו מכלל שבעה עממין ומכלל עמלק והרי הם כבני נח הכשרים
Once they stop behaving like Amalek, and they accept the rules of ethics and monotheism, they are yatzu miclal Amalek. They are now kosher – like the best of the gentile world.
It’s a remarkable ruling, but it’s the ruling of Maimonides. What is objectionable, what is to be destroyed about Amalek, is their deeds, their hatred. If they relinquish that, then they are no longer Amalek.
When Rabbi Soloveitchik, in the name of his father and grandfather, said that Amalek exists today, that any time a nation arises to destroy the Jewish people, that is an embodiment of Amalek, I believe he was referring to this idea.
What is dangerous, evil about Amalek is not their sheep and cows, not anything with a label signaling it as Amalekite. What is evil is the idea, the hatred, the irrational all consuming detestation for the Jewish people that exists. And when we encounter that, we encounter Amalek.
It is not that we have a mitzvah, G-d forbid, to kill (except for self-preservation). What we have is a mitzvah to ensure the destruction and ending of those ideas. As long as that exists, those hatreds, those obsessions with harming the Jewish people, then the Torah commands us loud and clear: Zachor et asher asah licha amalek, Don’t forget what Amalek did to you. You cant forget, because you cannot afford to forget.
This, I think, is where, not just one misguided (and I am sure by now repentant) student at Yeshiva University, but so much of the Jewish world, gets it wrong.
We cannot “get over” the Holocaust, because the Holocaust could happen again. We cannot “get over” anti-Semitsim, because anti-Semitism has never gone away. And we cannot let down our guard, because there are people who would not hesitate to harm us in the worst possible way.
What is anti-Semitism? Why does it survive, like a mutating germ, adapting to new surroundings, new terminology, but still the same poison that has existed for thousands of years?
Why do people who have never met a Jew, in far flung places in Europe and elsewhere, who look out of their windows and see unemployment, poverty and deprivation on their own doorstop, decide that the most pressing issue for them is to boycott Israel?
How can otherwise intelligent college kids, look at the massacre of innocents that has been going on for months in Syria and decide the real morally troubling part of the middle east is Israel, and hold ‘Israel apartheid week’, seeing that the freest and most protected Arab population in the middle east lives in Israel?
I don’t look for anti-Semitism and I am not paranoid. If I get bad service in a store, I don’t assume its because I am Jewish. If Israel is occasionally criticized, that is not always anti-Semitism.
But when it is out of all proportion … when it is, as it is for millions of people, an obsession, an irrational hatred … when trade unions and church groups all over the world, and increasingly in America, wish to boycott Israel (and Israel alone) … there is no other explanation. It is anti-Semitism.
We forget that at our peril. We have a duty to remember.
This past week there was a conference in the Arab city of Doha. It was sponsored by the Arab league. It was called International Conference for Defense of Jerusalem.
The Arab League was kind enough to invite some Jewish representatives. One, a representative of American Friends of Peace Now, wrote a column after the first day of the conference. She was surprised – shocked in fact – that almost none of the speakers at this conference believed that the Jews had any legitimate claim to Jerusalem at all, any authentic connection.
“All throughout the day, it was unfortunately the same story. Participants talked about Jerusalem as if Jewish history did not exist or was a fraud — as if all Jewish claims in the city were just a tactic to dispossess Palestinians.”
What should be sad to us is not just the sentiments expressed in Doha, but the knowledge that this flat out rejection of peace, rewriting of history, naked anti-Semitism, should be, in any way, a surprise to anyone.
When we, in our longing for peace, which is laudable, forget how irrationally obsessed so much of the world is with destroying Israel … when we fail to realize that our liberal tendencies cannot deal with the irrationality and venom of the hatred against Israel … we are forgetting that which the Torah says must be remembered.
We must not forget, because these are powerful forces, and to forget is to endanger ourselves.
There is, if not Amalek, a zecher Amalek, of a much greater dimension and threat. And that is Iran.
[And I know that all over the country this Shabbat Zachor, rabbis, who are, as is well known, experts on everything strategic, military and political … who see classified intelligence and are the best qualified to express exactly what Netanyahu and Obama need to do to Iran … Rabbis will be speaking about Iran. I have to confess that my certitude has failed me. I am not even remotely qualified to say what should be done. We have to pray to G-d that he is with our leaders because $5 a gallon for gas will be the least of our problems if one false move is made.]
But I have a different point. The danger Iran poses is being debated politically, but I do not feel it in the room. We hear about the threat, the rhetoric, the danger – but how are we sleeping at night? Where are the heartfelt prayers, the tears? I address myself first and foremost.
This is about more than politics – more than AIPAC and JStreet, Bibi and Obama. It’s about zachor et asher asa licha amalek, a threat of a contemporary Haman: “liharog ulihabed […} minashim ad taf”, to destroy us all; men, women and children.
If we aren’t sick to our hearts, it is because we don’t understand what it is that we are up against, and how much we need rachamei shamayim, mercy from above.
We live in a world where we have to remember Amalek, because Amalek has not forgotten about us. It is not the ideal, it’s not what we want. It would be great to be able to “get over” it all, but we dare not. Not now, not yet.
There is a remarkable commentary by Rabeinu Bachaye, a Spanish medieval commentator and great kabbalist:
והפרשה הזו התחילה בזכרון וסיימה בשכחה, להורות שעתיד זכרם להשתכח מן העולם, וזה בזמן המשיח
The Torah reading of Amalek opens with the word “remember” but ends with the word “forget”, to teach that, in the future, the memory of Amalek will be forgotten from the world – in the days of the Messiah.
Ultimately, the contradiction between being commanded to remember, and the command to obliterate the memory, cannot stand. And it will be resolved in forgetting.
The Torah commands us to remember Amalek. We should hold on to the memory in order that, one day soon, all the hatred, all of the obsession with trying to destroy us, will be erased. Until then, every mitzvah we do – every Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv that we recite, every page of Torah we learn – is dedicated to that goal of bringing the days of Messiah, when we, and the whole world, will live in peace and security. May we merit to see them soon.