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Parashath Zachor: Remember What, Exactly? Part 1

March 13, 2014

Deuteronomy 25:17-19:

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came from Egypt; 18 how he met you on the way, and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. 19 It shall be, when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies in the land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shalt not forget.

Maimonides counts three distinct commandments in this passage (Touger translation): The obligation to destroy the descendants of Amalek; The obligation to remember what Amalek did; and the prohibition against forgetting Amalek’s evil deeds, including his ambush against the Israelites during their journey from Egypt to Israel.

The sages ordained that this passage be read publicly on the Sabbath before Purim. Out of all the commandments in the Torah, why would these three receive special attention? There is no specific Sabbath dedicated to reminding us to lay tefillin, nor a special Sabbath to remind us of the obligation to honor our parents. However, we have a very important clue: there are other Sabbaths this month that are also dedicated to specific commandments, and we can perhaps find some common ground between them.

The first Sabbath, Sh’qalim, is dedicated to reminding us that it is the time of year to give our yearly donations to the Temple treasury. Although this made sense when the Temple stood, the obligation to donate does not apply when there is no Temple. Why would we need the reminder nowadays?

The third Sabbath is dedicated to reminding us to purify ourselves in preparation for the upcoming Passover Holiday, and the fourth Sabbath is dedicated to reminding us to prepare for the Passover offering. Once again, if there is no Temple, why would we need these reminders in our day?

Perhaps because the sages ruled that despite our pervasive state of contamination and the lack of a temple and altar, the sacrifices, including the Passover, may be brought, we should still be exerting ourselves to fulfill these commandments, and once we are trying to do that, it is only natural that we should seek to build the Temple, and that would necessitate fund raising.

We have thus seen the relevance of three of these special sabbaths, every year. They remind us to do that which needs to be done, and when. However, we still do not understand what Parshath Zachor has to do with them. It would be too simplistic to say that it has to do with Purim, as that still does not necessitate a special sabbath dedicated to reminding us about that, just like other holidays are not preceded by a reminder Sabbatical reading.

***

At the end of Kol Dodi Dofek, Rabbi Soloveichik wrote in the name of his father that, (Wurzburger translation) “When a people emblazons on its banner, ‘come, and let us cut them off from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be no more  in remembrance,’ It become thereby, Amalek.” The Soloveichiks’ based this claim on the fact that Maimonides does not qualify the law of blotting out the Amalekites the same way he qualifies the equivalent law with regard to the Canaanites, namely that they have already disappeared from history. Thus, there is still some form of halachic Amalek today, and possibly until the coming of the Messiah. Rabbi Soloveichik did note that the obligation to wipe out individual Amalekites would only apply to actual genealogical descendants of Amalek, who would be unknown to us today.

It should be noted that Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch told me that Maimonides did not need to qualify the law concerning Amalek, as the same forces that caused the Canaanites to disappear have also removed the Amalekites. He holds that there are no Amalekites around, nor can there be a stand-in nation. Maimonides himself wrote in the Book of Commandments: “The 188th [positive] commandment is to wipe out the seed of Amalek alone out of the rest of the seed of Esau….” This shows that Amalek is specifically a genealogical categorization. Further, in the Guide, Maimonides writes about the reasons for seemingly perplexing passages included in the Bible. In response to the potential question as to why the book of Genesis dedicates so much of the narrative to describe the descendants of Esau and Seir, he writes (3:50):

The list of the families of Seir and their genealogy is given in the Law (ibid. xxxvi. 20-36), because of one particular commandment. For God distinctly commanded the Israelites concerning Amalek to blot out his name (Dent. xxv. 17-19). Amalek was the son of Eliphaz and Timna, the sister of Lotan (ibid. xxxvi. 12). The other sons of Esau were not included in this commandment. But Esau was by marriage connected with the Seirites, as is distinctly stated in Scripture: and Seirites were therefore his children: he reigned over them; his seed was mixed with the seed of Seir, and ultimately all the countries and families of Seir were called after the sons of Esau who were the predominant family, and they assumed more particularly the name Amalekites, because these were the strongest in that family. If the genealogy of these families of Seir had not been described in full they would all have been killed, contrary to the plain words of the commandment. For this reason the Seirite families are fully described, as if to say, the people that live in Seir and in the kingdom of Amalek are not all Amalekites: they are the descendants of some other man, and are called Amalekites because the mother of Amalek was of their tribe. The justice of God thus prevented the destruction of an [innocent] people that lived in the midst of another people [doomed to extirpation]: for the decree was only pronounced against the seed of Amalek. The reason of this decree has already been stated by us.

This makes it clear that Maimonides felt that the biblical commandments concerning the Amalekites were directed against a specific and well-defined national entity, and not to who ever dons the mantle of Amalek.

Rabbi Bar Hayim, as proof to Rabbi Soloveichik’s position, brings this week’s parsha: If there were no such continuing threat from the Amalekites, then why would there be a yearly, specific, and public reminder to get rid of them? Rather, it is true that in every generation there is another Amalek, an entity dedicated to the eradication of the Jewish people, and despite our gentle and kind nature, we must internalize that if we are to live as a holy people in our land, we have to preemptively eliminate them.

Rabbi Rabinovitch responded that the reason for the enactment of reading Parashath Zachor is to remind us that Amalek’s sneak attack was punishment for our misbehaviors shortly after the Exodus, and thus serves to remind us forever that national tragedies and sufferings are due to our own shortcomings. (He would probably read verse 19, above, as “and you did not fear God.”) At the time, I found this explanation unsatisfying.

***

Many naysayers, new agers, anti-semites, reformers, and self-hating Jews point to the anti-Amalek commandments as a form of what they believe to be “Old Testament barbarity,” or other such nonsense. Worse, they point to Rabbi Soloveichik’s conceptualization of the eternal Amalekites, an idea that can be found throughout the Orthodox and right-wing world, as a prime example of modern-day religious belligerence. In an ironic new form of the Blood Libel, they wish to believe that some traditional Jews are just itching to paint some perceived enemy as an Amalek, and thus deserving of annihilation.

This could not be farther from the truth. Rather, as every rational person knows, the Jews would be the last people on earth to commit genocide or ethnic cleansing. For their God’s sake, most Jews would not even fight to save their own lives, both on the personal and national level, if they had any say in the matter. In actuality, those few who appear  every few centuries, Jews who actually stand up and defend themselves and their people, or who preemptively attack those who would destroy them, are “embarrassments.”

Consider the following: The Torah commands Jewish men to be fruitful and multiply, and according to Maimonides, there is an additional commandment to marry. Now, most normal men would pursue the opposite sex even if there were no such commandment(s), but there was (and to a lesser extent still is) an ascetic school of thought within Judaism that sexuality and sensuousness would best be avoided, and this indeed spawned Christian monasticism. Perhaps great men like Maimonides and the Vilna Gaon would have chosen celibacy as an ideal. As they say in Aramaic, qa mashma lan, that is why the Torah teaches us that there is such a commandment, because had there not been such a commandment, the pious would perhaps have chosen abstinence.

The same is true with regards to the commandments concerning self-governance and warfare. Most normal nations and societies do not have to be ordered by their God to maintain standing armies for their defense, or to attempt to neutralize alien threats, because such things are obvious! The Americans and Russians and Bulgarians have no second thoughts about using force to protect themselves. Not so the Jewish people, who by nature are “merciful, shy, and kind.” Everyone knows that the people of Israel, if they could, would never fight their enemies if they had a choice. (There are some historical exceptions.) Thus, God, in His wisdom, bade us to 1. make defensive wars when necessary, what is referred to as one type of milhemeth mitzwa, 2. fight against those who would prevent us from controlling our homeland, what is termed the war against the Canaanite nations, and 3. preemptively eliminate those who are openly plotting our destruction. The original commandment of destroying Amalek, when it was unanimously operative, was directed against a people who posed a clear and present threat to our people, and would spitefully have risked their own lives just to harm ours. The Amalekites of Saul’s day were not the innocent descendants of the one’s who attacked our people centuries before that. “And Samuel said: As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.” (I Samuel 15:33) Agag and his people were killers.

For some reason, there is an insidious double standard at play whereby it is considered wrong for any Jew or Jewish entity to consider fighting back against his or its enemies, and it is the greatest wrong to actually act. In defense of those militant “religious extremists” and “settlers” who supposedly venerate Baruch Goldstein, we should point out that despite the fact that politically correct Jews like to say that they honor him for rising up against the Amalekites, it is not so. They honor his memory as one who intervened and prevented a planned and organised pogrom against the Jewish community of Hebron and Kiryat Arba that Purim, a fact that has been conveniently eliminated from the “correct” historical record so that the misguided amongst us can maintain their myth of The Jewish Terrorist and the “cycle of violence.” Since Goldstein was killed in the act, he has never been given a fair trial, and the embarrassed Jews are still desperately seeking some new boogieman because the last Jewish terrorist, Jack Teitel, has already been put away for life. They latch on to some Rabbis or politicians who have enough common sense to merely identify those plotting the next Holocaust, and then cry extremist. Their willful ignoring of the issue only serves to further endanger themselves, because there are no Jews, nor has there been of late any Jews, seeking to “wipe out Amalek.”

It is also at this point worth considering that the prophets fault the Jewish people for not fulfilling the commandments to get rid of the Amalekites and the Canaanites. We never got it right because we do not want to fight.

***

I found an interesting textual clue that fits with Rabbi Soloveichik’s idea. Throughout I Samuel 15, the Amalekite king is either referred to as just “Agag“, with the second vowel being a kamatz, the longer A sound as in father, or as “Agag, melech Amalek,” (Agag, King of Amalek), except in the second form, the kamatz under the gimmel has become the shorter vowel, patah (O as in pot), indicating that the word Agag in the second case is a construct form, meaning that “Agag” is not a name or proper noun. It is a general noun or title! And when you consider that our scriptures are full of respellings, revocalizations, and renamings in order to indicate disgust for certain people and things, like calling foreign gods “shiqqutzim” and “to’evoth“, detestables and abominations, or certain other names of idols, like Moloch becoming Molech so that it sounds more derogatory, or the wicked king Kushan Rishathayim (Judges 3) having a name that means “doubly wicked”, or even later, Antiochus Epimanes  (maniacal) instead of Epiphanes (“the Wow”), it becomes clear that we called the Amalekite king “Agag” as a form of derision. Both gimmels in the word are without d’geishim and weak, indicating that they were not pronounced with the hard G sound, but with a sound that is somewhere between the German/Israeli R and the weak Khaf sound. Thus, his name was a form of onomatopoeia (like “crash” and “boom”) and meant “the ecchhh” or “the Yukky King of Amalek”.

Continuing with this line of thought, we can ask, if the Canaanites and Amalekites and the other ancient peoples had already disappeared two centuries before Haman, how did the authors of Esther know that Haman was an Amalekite? The answer is that we do not need to know about Haman’s origins, and when the fellow with the obviously Persian name (Haman son of Hamedatha) from Persia is identified in our Bible as an “Agagite,” it may mean that we named him Haman the Wretch. (Note that M’muchan’s name is spelled once as Mum-kan, lit. “there is a blemish here,” and he is also identified by the sages with Haman.) This is merely a an explanation that allows us to understand more about Haman without resorting to a Midrash that he was indeed descended from the last king of Amalek.

It seems that although the actual biblical commandments concerning Amalek could no longer be fulfilled, Hazal realized that the lessons of those commandments must always be learned, and they saw in Haman and all our subsequent oppressors  a tinge of Amalek’s eternal hatred. Thus they sought to create a meta-historical connection between him and the original Amalekites. Although Rabbi Rabinovitch seems correct in his claim that Maimonides believed that the commandments to remember, not forget, and wipe out Amalek only apply to the actual ancient Amalekites, Hazal, at a point in history some time after the Amalekites were no more, felt that because “in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us,” it was necessary once a year to prepare the people for the upcoming Passover holiday, and a part of those preparations was reminding the community that they could not maintain their Temple in peace if they did not financially support it and realize that they had to make sure to eliminate any national, existential threats posed by their enemies.

This Purim, may God grant us, our leaders, and our pundits the moral clarity to want to fight our enemies and not ourselves.

(part 2, part 3)

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From → original, parasha

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