Shabbat Zachor 5777
By: Mati Kirschenbaum
Purim is in the air. Everybody uses the last Shabbat before it to rest before the festivities, brainstorm with friends what costumes to wear and to sleep up in advance in anticipation of a long, eventful night. One could expect that our Torah reading should mark this festival. And mark it does – but not in the way we would expect it. Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of Rememberance. In the maftir, the last portion read from the Torah on Shabbat Zachor, we read the following words from Deuteronomy 25:17-19: Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Eternal your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
What does Amalek have to do with the Purim celebration? The answer to this question is that the main enemy of Jews in the Purim story, Haman, is described as a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalekites in the times of king Saul. In the first Book of Samuel, we read that King Saul was commanded by prophet Samuel to kill all the Amalekites and all the animals that belong to them. Saul hesitated to carry out this order. He attacked the city of Amalekites, but their nomadic bands were able to flee. Furthermore, instead of killing him on the spot, Saul’s soldiers took Agag, the king of Amalekites, captive and sacrificed his sheep and cattle to the Eternal. Due to his failure to obey divine commands immediately, Saul was rejected by the Eternal as the king over Israel. His successor, David, tried to destroy the remaining Amalekites as well, but also failed to do it. In the book of Chronicles we read that the Amalekites were finally destroyed by the king Hezekiah. In the light of this statement, we might be surprised that Haman is identified as a descendant of Amalek. We might explain this inconsistency in a number of ways. Firstly, we could say that the author of the book of Esther was simply unaware of the statement from the Book of Chronicles. Secondly, we could say that he disagreed with the statement that the last Amalekites were killed in the times of Hezekiah. Thirdly, we could say that the editor of the Book of Esther did not imply that Haman was directly related to the Amalekites. He could have believed that Haman was their spiritual descendant. We will never know for sure why the Book of Esther disagrees with the Book of Chronicles. What we know, however, is that Deuteronomy commands the Israelites to eradicate an entire nation from the face of the earth. This commandment seems harsh and barbaric. As modern Jews, we need to ask ourselves: why does our tradition compel us to act in such a way? What is so wrong about the Amalekites that the Torah commands us to act this way?
I believe we can find the answer in the verse we have just read: When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. Here we learn that the Amalekites were to be hated and fought because of the way they showed hostility. Unlike other peoples, they did not confront nations they considered enemies head-on. Instead, they prefered to attack them from behind, targetting those who lagged behind, those who were powerless and vulnerable: elders, children and women. In my opinion, the main fault of Amalekites is that they were ready to attack the innocent who had no strength to defend themselves.
The feeling of full or partial dependence on others as far as one’s physical security is concerned is not only limited to children or seniors. It was experienced by many minority groups who historically depended on their rulers to guarantee their safety. These rulers could at any time make arbitrary decisions that could bring either prosperity or mortal peril. Jews found themselves at mercy of such rulers in all diaspora communities since the destruction of the First Temple. No wonder that the story of the court official Haman, the evil descendant of Amalek, who sought to kill the Jews of the Persian empire, resonated strongly with diaspora Jews. They wanted to believe that all the oppressors of the Jews, as difficult to overcome as the biblical Amalek, could ultimately be defeated. Every year, hearing the story of noble Mordechai and Esther triumphing over Haman, they felt empowered by the story of the weak and disempowered being able to defend themselves.
The historical need of our ancestors to look for reassurance in the Purim story to regain certainty that the weak have a chance to survive the oppression of the powerful is understandable, given the turbulent character of our history. While we celebrate we should not forget, however, that oppression and discrimination are not the only experiences the Jewish people made in the diaspora. Throughout centuries, they were able to dwell peacefully in many lands, making their languages, customs and cuisine part of our diverse heritage. Surely, Jewish history knows plenty of Hamans, evil individuals that meant Jews harm. Still, I do not consider it possible that Jewish history – or, for that matter, general history, knows nations that consisted only of such individuals. I refuse to believe that an entire nation can be so thoroughly and irrevocably immoral that it only deserves destruction, like the Amalekites in the Torah. I prefer to believe that this verse reflects the ancient tendency to ascribe general characteristics to strangers, particularly to enemies. Today, after the Shoah, we know that such blanket descriptions of nationalities have terrible consequences. With this knowledge, we can read the words encouraging us to blot out the name of Amalekites from the earth as a commandment that expects us to act against the human tendency to oppress the weak, symbolised in our tradition by Amalek and his descendants. When we celebrate Purim, we mustn’t forget that there are many groups in the world that are subjected to persecution, just like Jews in the Purim story. I encourage you to have them in mind this Shabbat of Rememberance. I hope the awareness of their existence will make us appreciate our freedom more and will motivate us to use this freedom to help those struggling with their Hamans.
Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach!