Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers.
With the final three sentences of Parshat Ki Tetzei, the Torah turns its attention to the mitzva of remembering the crimes of the nation of Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people.
Zachor, remember that which Amalek did to you, on the way as you left Egypt.
Asher korcha ba’derech, how he happened upon you on the way, va’yezaneiv becha kol hanecheshalim acharecha, and he struck those who were hindmost among you, all the weakest at your rear, v’ata ayeif v’yageia v’lo yarei Elokim, and you were faint and weary, and [he] feared not God.
And it will be when the Lord your God gives you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance to possess it, timcheh et zecher Amalek mi’tachat hashamayim, you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven – lo tishkach, you shall not forget!
The rabbis eventually ordain a special reading of this passage each year on the Shabbat before the festival of Purim, a Shabbat that consequently becomes known as Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of remembrance. This reading is ordained in order to ensure the yearly fulfillment of the positive biblical mitzva conveyed by the passage itself: the mitzva to remember the crimes of Amalek. The Shabbat before Purim is chosen for the fulfillment of this mitzva because Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was a descendent of Agag, the last king of Amalek.
No other nation is singled out by the Torah for enduring enmity as is the nation of Amalek.
Why must an eternal battle be waged against this nation? What was the exact nature of its crimes? The Egyptians enslaved and tormented the Israelites for centuries; the Canaanites and Emorites attacked the nation during its wilderness travels; the Moabites and Midianites conspired to spiritually destroy them; the Edomites refused to allow them to pass through their land and denied them water to drink. Yet, while these nations are chastised – and in some cases ostracized – by the Torah, none of them earn the enduring enmity that is reserved for Amalek. What aspects of Amalek’s crimes warrant this treatment?
Furthermore, whatever Amalek’s crimes may be, how can the Torah mandate perpetual hostility towards this nation? Does the Torah accept the concept of collective guilt? Are descendents to be blamed for crimes committed by their forefathers centuries earlier? What are the practical ramifications of the mandate to erase the memory of Amalek across the ages?
Finally, the mitzva of remembering the crimes of Amalek, as outlined in the text, seems to be inherently contradictory. The Torah enjoins us to remember, and yet, the ultimate goal of remembering is to reach the point when we will “erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven.” It seems as if the Torah is commanding us to remember, in order to forget? The Torah then deepens the mystery by closing the passage with the admonition: “You shall not forget!” On a practical level, how are we meant to understand this mitzva?
The Torah’s terse description of Amalek’s original attack upon the Israelites conveys volumes concerning the nature of the evil that this nation represents.
1. Asher korcha ba’derech, “how he happened upon you on the way…”
To underscore the unique nature of Amalek’s attack, the Torah utilizes an unusual verb, korcha, that is not conjugated in this form anywhere else in the Torah.
According to the pshat, the straightforward meaning of the text, the verb korcha is derived from the word mikreh (happenstance). The central feature of Amalek’s sin, the Torah informs us, was the casual nature of their attack upon the Israelites. The Israelites did not threaten Amalek in any way; they were not passing through their land; these nations were not engaged in physical or philosophical conflict. They simply “happened” to meet each other on the way. Amalek’s attack was entirely unprovoked, motivated by the “pure joy of massacre.”
The connection between Amalek and Haman, the villain of the Purim story, now becomes clearer as well. Haman is not simply the biological descendent of the nation of Amalek, but the philosophical descendent of that nation, as well. Faced with one individual’s stubborn unwillingness to bow down before him, a “normal villain” would be satisfied with vengeance wrought upon the perpetrator alone. It takes an Amalekite, like Haman, to use the opportunity to spitefully attack not only that individual but his entire people. Unreasonable, reasonless hatred is the mark of Amalek – a mark clearly reflected in Haman’s reactions.
A Midrashic interpretation, quoted by Rashi, adds another layer of significance to the verb describing Amalek’s crimes. The Midrashic scholars discern the term kar (cold) embedded in the verb korcha. When you left Egypt, God informs the Israelites, you were “boiling hot” to the touch. No nation, upon hearing of the miracles wrought on your behalf during the Exodus, would dare attack you…until Amalek attacked. And then, just as an individual who enters a hot tub cools the water for those who follow, Amalek’s brazen attack upon you “cooled” your image and rendered you vulnerable to attack from other sources, as well.
2. Va’yezaneiv becha kol hanecheshalim acharecha…, “and he struck those who were hindmost among you, all the weakest at your rear…”
Once again, the Torah underscores the extraordinary nature of Amalek’s crimes through the unique conjugation of a verb, va’yezaneiv, found in this form nowhere else in the Torah text.
Derived from the noun zanav (tail), the verb va’yezaneiv underscores the despicable, cowardly nature of Amalek’s attack. Amalek fails to attack the Israelites head-on, but deliberately targets the hindmost section of the Israelite column: the sector containing, as the Torah testifies, kol hanecheshalim acharecha, “all the weakest at your rear.” The weakness of others does not move the nation of Amalek to compassion and sympathy, as it would any human being imbued with the spirit of God. Instead, discerned weakness and vulnerability only awakens the bloodlust and scorn embedded in Amalek’s heart.
3. V’ata ayeif v’yageia v’lo yarei Elokim, “and you were faint and weary, and [he] feared not God.”
We have translated the final notes on Amalek’s attack according to the interpretation of the vast majority of scholars from Midrashic times onward. These closing comments, the authorities maintain, can only be understood if we divide the text into two sections, each referring to a different subject. The phrase “and you were faint and weary” refers to the Israelites, while the phrase “and [he] feared not God” refers to Amalek.
In summary, the Torah thus declares, Amalek attacked you at the point when you were, as a whole, weakened from the journey. This brazen assault and its despicable characteristics showed a total lack of any God awareness on Amalek’s part.
Some scholars, however, suggest a different, bold approach to these closing notes – an approach that is also based on a Midrashic source. Noting that the text literally reads, “and you were faint and weary, and feared not God,” these commentaries insist that the entire textual description, including the statement “and feared not God,” applies to the Israelites. The Torah informs us of the true source of the nation’s vulnerability to Amalek’s attack. Not only were the people physically weary but, at this moment, they were also “bereft of mitzvot.” A related tradition, found in many sources, connects Amalek’s attack to the event recorded immediately prior in the book of Shmot. There, the Torah describes that, at a location known as Refidim, the Israelites complain to Moshe over a lack of water. These protests, according to Moshe, ultimately descend into an overall test of God, as the nation asks, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” The spiritual weakness demonstrated by the people during this event ultimately leaves them open to the assault by Amalek that immediately follows.
A clear picture thus emerges from the Torah’s brief description of the crimes for which the nation of Amalek is singled out. This is a people filled with spite and hatred – a nation that attacks without warning or cause, that preys upon the physically and spiritually weak, that revels in violence, and that represents the antithesis of all the Torah stands for. Good cannot triumph while Amalek exists.
While the Torah makes a cogent case for opposition to Amalek, however, the permanent character of this mandated hostility gives us pause. What are the practical ramifications of the commandment to erase the memory of Amalek in our day? Do the descendents of an ancient people bear continuing responsibility for crimes committed by their ancestors centuries ago?
A broader analysis of these issues can be found in our earlier study concerning the approach of Jewish law to war (see Bamidbar: Matot-Masei 2). For the purposes of this study, however, we will summarize some of the salient points that apply specifically to the laws surrounding Amalek.
1. The questions we raise are not new. An early Midrashic source reflects the ambivalence felt by the rabbis as they consider the Torah’s approach towards Amalek. The Talmud suggests that Shaul, the first king of Israel, engages God in poignant debate after receiving the divine command to utterly destroy the nation of Amalek and all of its wealth.
When Shaul raises concerns over the morality of killing countless souls – men, women, children and animals – God refuses to address the issues directly and commands the king “not to be overly righteous. Through this Midrashic medium, the rabbis perhaps give voice to their own concerns and conclude that, while the answers to the issues raised will forever remain elusive, God’s will must be obeyed.
2. Some authorities, over time, increasingly perceive Amalek as a conceptual rather than as a physical entity. The evil represented by this ancient nation, these authorities maintain, continues to exist and must be eradicated if good is to triumph. An argument might be made that this transition to the conceptual is reinforced by the text itself when it speaks of the obligation to eradicate the “memory of Amalek,” without reiterating the requirement to physically destroy the nation.
3. Most scholars, in contrast, continue to interpret the Torah’s commandment concerning Amalek in concrete terms. The physical obligation to destroy the Amalekite people, these authorities maintain, continues over time.
The practical application of this law, however, runs into a serious roadblock. How does one identify an Amalekite?
Complicating this question is a conclusion reached in the Mishna allowing the acceptance of a convert of Ammonite descent into the Jewish community, in spite of the biblical injunction “An Ammonite or a Moabite may not enter the congregation of the Lord, even their tenth generation… to eternity.”
This allowance is made, the Mishna explains, because of the actions of the ancient Assyrian king Sancheriv (sixth century BCE), who, upon embarking on a campaign of conquest in the ancient Middle East, completely subdues his enemies by exiling them from their homelands and scattering them across the face of his empire. Tragically, Jewish history is indelibly altered when the Kingdom of Israel is conquered and treated in this fashion by Sancheriv. As a result, ten tribes of Israel assimilate into surrounding cultures and disappear from the historical stage.
Like the “Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel, the Mishna claims, other ancient biblical nations, including the Ammonites and the Moabites, were scattered by Sancheriv, resulting in the loss of their independent identities. Even someone claiming to be of Ammonite descent, therefore, is not treated as such and may become a full-fledged member of the Jewish people. The Rambam codifies the Mishna’s conclusion in broad terms: “When Sancheriv, the King of Assyria, rose, he confused all the nations and commingled them with one another and exiled them from their places.… Therefore, a convert who comes in our time, in all places, whether he [claims to] be Egyptian, Ammonite, Cushite or of any other nationality, both men and women, are immediately permitted to join the congregation.”
Centuries later, the concept of commingled nations again becomes part of the halachic discourse when a number of halachists revisit the biblical commandment to blot out the nation of Amalek. Rabbi Yosef Babad mirrors the position of many when he emphatically states in the Minchat Chinuch, his renowned commentary to the Sefer Hachinuch, “And today we are no longer commanded in this [commandment to blot out the remembrance of Amalek] because Sancheriv has already risen and confused the whole world.” Due to Sancheriv’s policies of conquest, these authorities maintain, after the sixth century, the archenemy of the Jewish nation is no longer recognizable.
4. A fascinating “blended” position is offered by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the Rav, based upon a subtle discrepancy in the rulings of the Rambam.
The Rav notes that the Rambam clearly states in his codification of the law that the obligation to destroy the seven Canaanite nations no longer applies because “their memory has long since perished.” Strikingly, however, the Rambam makes no such allowance concerning the obligation to destroy the nation of Amalek.
Why, asks the Rav, does the Rambam assume that Amalek survives while the memory of other ancient nations “perishes”?
To explain this legal disparity, the Rav suggests that two distinct commandments concerning Amalek emerge from the Torah text reflecting two different categories of Amalek.
The verse “You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek” mandates the destruction of each individual genealogical descendent of Amalek. This commandment loses its force when Sancheriv’s method of conquest robs the ancient nations of their independent identities. The verse “the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” establishes the obligation to obliterate any nation across the face of history that seeks to destroy the Jewish people. This second commandment, which defines Amalek in broad conceptual rather than biological terms, remains unaffected by Sancheriv’s actions. “There still exists,” the Rav maintains, “a category of Amalek [as a people] even now after the peoples
have been intermingled [and there are no longer individual Amalekites].”
The Rav explains that within the context of this commandment, Hitler and the Nazis were the Amalekites of the 1930s and ’40s, while “the mobs of Nasser and the mufti” were the Amalekites of the 1950s and ’60s. We can safely assume that the Rav would similarly identify the members of Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and others as the Amalekites in our day.
The Rav thus agrees that the concept of obligatory warfare based on genetic national identity becomes moot after Sancheriv’s conquests. He maintains, however, that a second type of national identity emerges from the Torah’s commandments concerning Amalek – an identity determined by behavior rather than bloodline. This national identity remains intact to this day, obligating the Jewish people in each generation to ongoing struggle against the Amalekites of their day.
Finally, we turn our attention to the character of the mitzva concerning Amalek. As noted earlier, a fundamental inconsistency seems to emerge from the text.
The Torah clearly commands us to “remember that which Amalek did to you…” The text then explains, however, that the goal of this remembrance is to reach the point when we will successfully “erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven.” The Torah seems to be commanding us to remember, in order to forget. Deepening the mystery, the text then closes with the admonition “You shall not forget!” On a practical level, how are we to understand this mitzva?
The key to understanding the mitzva of zachor lies in recognizing that the Torah clearly distinguishes between two distinct phenomena: “forgetting” and “erasing.”
When something is forgotten, that condition still exists. We have simply sublimated our awareness of the issues involved. In contrast, when something is erased, that condition is obliterated. We have successfully confronted the issues involved and dealt with them.
Once this distinction is noted, the Torah’s approach to Amalek becomes abundantly clear and profoundly relevant: “Zachor, remember, that which Amalek did to you…” Keep this memory alive, for if you “forget,” the challenges and horrors of Amalek will resurface over and over again.
Timcheh et zecher Amalek mi’tachat hashamayim, “you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven…” Remember, until you have convinced the world to erase, to eradicate, Amalek in all of its forms from its midst. Remind the world of the lesson that you have learned through bitter experience – that for good to triumph, evil must be destroyed. Speak out and oppose evil, wherever it may exist.
Lo tishkach, “you shall not forget!” Do not take the easy way out. Do not succumb to temptation. Do not forget until you have succeeded in the eradication of Amalek. And if the world fails to listen, continue to remember and remind them, until the end of days.
How prescient the commandment to remember the crimes of Amalek seems today as we consider our world, seventy years after the Holocaust.
The rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, even in countries almost bereft of Jews; anti-Zionism and the devastating double standard applied against Israel by the world community; countless atrocities committed against ethnic, racial and religious minorities in countries across the globe – all these and other phenomena give lie to the public proclamations, resolutions and commitments for a better world that followed the close of World War II.
The world grows tired of hearing about the horrors of the Shoah. In the presence of a dwindling community of survivors, there are already those who loudly deny that the Holocaust ever occurred. Such a world is doomed to see horrors recur. We are, therefore, obligated to change the world by insisting that its inhabitants “remember.” And when, with God’s help, we finally do succeed in fully “erasing the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens,” there will no longer be a need to “remember.”
Points to Ponder
The discerning reader might have noticed that we “dodged” a particularly difficult question in our study.
We noted that, according to many authorities, the commandment to destroy “genetic Amalekites” cannot be fulfilled today. We failed to answer, however, how God could issue such a commandment. Is the Torah preaching the mantra of collective guilt? Are descendents to be blamed for crimes committed by forefathers centuries earlier? How do we relate to the fact that, according to most authorities, if we could definitively identify a genetic Amalekite today, we would be obligated to summarily execute him or her?
We have stated many times before that questions like these are based on the erroneous assumption that Torah morality must always correlate to the temporal mores of our day. We may never fully comprehend the philosophical underpinnings of the commandment to eradicate the nation of Amalek. The rabbis clearly made this point in the Midrash positing Shaul’s struggle with God’s decree (see study).
Nonetheless, a glimmer of understanding of these difficult issues might emerge from our own unfortunate experience.
As the State of Israel continues its arduous search for peace with its neighbors, one fact, ignored by the world, becomes clearer each day. As long as the Palestinians and so much of the Arab world continue to educate their children towards violence, martyrdom and hatred of Jews, no peace will ever take root. In classrooms and mosques, in textbooks and over the airwaves, young Palestinians are bombarded with images portraying Jews as subhuman enemies, worthy only of destruction.
Can a child from such a culture be “blamed” when he reaches adulthood and acts in consonance with these images? Is a suicide bomber, raised since childhood in a seething cauldron of hatred, fully responsible for his actions? Was the ordinary German, pummeled by Nazi propaganda, guilty when he turned a blind eye towards genocide?
Certainly, in the heat of battle, such delicate debates concerning “personal fault” have no place. The evil must be confronted and eliminated without hesitation.
In the quiet moments that follow, however, blame must be assessed, certainly upon the perpetrators, but also upon the guilty society, as well. A society that educates its young towards hatred, violence and murder must share responsibility, as a whole, for their crimes. In Amalek, the Torah confronts such a society and the resulting mandate is abundantly clear.