The Meaning of Amalek: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
A Kabbalat Shabbat Sermon
This Shabbat is a special one. Called Shabbat Zachor, it means the Sabbath of Remembering. We are a people with strong association to memory. It is our weapon against disappearance, our instrument for shaping our collective identity. We remember because God has revealed the divine through startling, dramatic, and epiphianic events that cause us to shake our heads and exclaim, “God was right here and I didn’t know it!” Memory is also our solace, the balm we extract when, having lain too long in the dust, we need to revive ourselves by retelling the love story of how God rescued us from Egypt. For thousands of years our stories have kept our hope alive.
The Shabbat before Purim, Shabbat Zachor, doesn’t offer as sweet a story as the strong arm of God lifting us from Egypt nor is it as cosmic as when God’s voice both terrified and reassured those who stood trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai. Tomorrow morning we will take two scrolls to read Torah, one for the portion of the week, and one from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, which begins with the word, rufz: Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt–how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Adonai your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
The Haftarah we read is from the First Book of Samuel 15:1-34, which also reminds us of Saul’s battle with the Amelekites. Even though Saul, the first Jewish king, has slaughtered every man, woman, and child of the tribe, he has disobeyed God by allowing the leader to live, and for this Samuel kills him.
We read these portions because Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is a descendant of Amalek. We blot out the name of Amalek by screaming when we hear Haman’s name in the Megillah reading. As a school child I remember singing merrily about Haman swinging from the gallows. I was also taught that Jews are a sweet people, committed to peace and love and social justice. Obviously that had nothing to do with the Enemy! Any enemy of the Jews was an enemy of justice and compassion and deserved destruction. Samuel treated Saul with justice and Haman deserved to hang.
The Torah describes many enemies of the Jews–Egyptians, Canaanites, Midianites to mention but a few–but Amalek is in a unique category, the only one marked for extinction. The punishment of Saul, so harsh and unforgiving, is disturbing, too. These are troubling, frightening texts of Jewish violence and hatred. What exactly is the unique sin of Amalek that has evoked such response? And what exactly are we to remember on this Shabbat and on Purim?
Amalek was supposedly the grandson of Esau. I say supposedly because outside the Bible we have no mention of Amalek. (By the way, Amalek and Amelekite is used interchangeably, both referring to a people rather than an individual.) And if they actually existed they were surely blotted out by David’s time. They were nomads, always living on the borders of Cannon, a fringe people who, like any who live on the edge, threatened the boundaries of the people living inside the borders.
Whether they existed ultimately becomes unimportant, because by the time of the rabbis in the first century c.e., Amalek had come to stand for pure evil. The struggle between Amalek and Israel, therefore, was a struggle between evil and good. We will see that it was a small leap from attaching a metaphysical notion of evil to a non-existent group to seeing all actual enemies such as Rome, Haman, and Hitler in modern times, to being descendants of Amelek. We have an appalling, contemporary example of not needing a real enemy to inspire hatred. The Jewish population in Japan is marginal, maybe a 1000 people, yet it is one of the few countries of the world that still publishes the infamous anti-Semitic tract, The Elders of Zion. It publishes lots of anti-Semitic books because, despite never having had a Jewish population of any influence, Jews and their religion have come to stand for evil.
Midrash tells us that Amalek attacked us when we were newly liberated, newborn if you will, and not yet firmly on our path to the promised land. We were hungry and tired and they picked off our weakest members, the stragglers at the end who were probably the elderly and the children. Dominance by the strongest is a reality that we know all too well. Judaism is not the only religion that points to the injustice and sin of abusing power; even secular thought condemns abuse of power. Simone deBeavoir, in The Second Sex, suggests that male dominance over women stems from the simple fact that men are bigger and physically stronger than women.
Survival of the fittest has unfortunately determined much of human history. In fact, we are challenged by it right now. The world is changing at lightning speed in all directions–jobs, relationships, and homes have rapid turnover these days. The young keep pace, but not everyone will. Those who are slower, the deliberate and contemplative members of our society, will fall behind. Those that can drive the fastest on the information highway will flourish, but what of the others who cannot afford to buy the vehicle of transportation or those who are not young enough or smart enough to drive? We who rush to get on board are not perpetrators, but unless we take care to value even our weakest members, we are bystanders. What about the Israelites who were at the head of the line? Did they turn back to help their weakest people? Could our remembering be to teach us that until we see ourselves as hands to uphold the fallen, we will be attacked?
Some of the rabbis say that what happened to us at Rephadim, the place of the attack, was because we weren’t holding the Torah securely enough. Just before the attack the Israelites were complaining to Moses that they were thirsty, that Moses had taken them and their children from Egypt to kill them! Rashi likens the people to a child riding his father’s shoulders and asks where his father is. The father grows annoyed and says, “Don’t you know where I am?” He puts the child down none too gently and the child is bitten by a dog.
Maybe our contribution to the world is to show that might doesn’t always make right, that despite our smallness as a people we have survived longer than the great civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. We’re still here, survivors for 3000 years because we haven’t forgotten our contract: we have a mission to repair the world and heal the wounded and in exchange we will receive God’s shelter. We’ve also survived because we didn’t forget to laugh. We have holidays like Purim to help us cope with being powerless and despised. More about the specifics of that later.
Amalek’s sin was more than attacking the weak. Just as Cain will forever bear the mark of the one who first killed, so Amalek will be known forever as the first nation to attack the Jewish people. The first not only is responsible for his own deed, but for making the next time easier for someone else. Part of the United States’ decision in dropping the atom bomb surely weighed the importance of the unprecedented action that would lead the world into a new and more dangerous form of warfare.
I mentioned that Amalek began as a real enemy but ultimately became a symbol of wickedness. If we viewed the Amalekites not as an external threat but simply as a paradigm of our own dark side, and if we did not claim that our enemies possessed a genetic link to this symbol, Amalek would be a useful lesson of how not to be. We would examine ourselves for the destructive, murderous part that lurks in every heart and blot it out, or at least try to. But that may be too abstract for human beings. Remember the song in South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught to hate…”? We need a face to hate, one we can point to and say, “Here is evil! Here is chaos! We see even in the Encyclopedia Judaica a reference to Arabs as descendants of Amalek.
Amalek doesn’t simply stand for the forces of darkness; that would be harmless, even beneficial to have a non-existent enemy, a mythic beast to hate. But Amelek is real, he is the “other.” Four years ago on Purim, Baruch Goldstein saw the Palestinians of Hebron as the ones who personify evil and killed 50 praying Muslims. Perhaps human beings cannot see themselves by who they are, but who they are not. The more alike we are the more we must find our difference. That’s why most hatreds are between people who are not so different from one another. Further, to defend being who we are, we look for specialness about ourselves and superiority over the other. The Nazis made the Jews the despised “other,” the non-Aryan in their midst. In looking at Amalek as the “other” in Jewish literature, we find ourselves with disturbing similarities: have we done to others what has been done to us?
Let’s go back and wrestle with the text in Deuteronomy and perhaps find answers. The first problem here is that the idea of completely wiping out Amalek is a command to commit genocide. The first Jew, Abraham, stays God’s hand when the Holy One wants to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah. Why is it all right here to kill the innocent along with the guilty? Second, what about the predominant theme of redemption in our teachings? God will redeem those who repent of their sins. Why don’t the Amalekites get the chance to do teshuvah? Are there nations and individuals beyond redemption?
If we believe that God is All, that every thing good and bad, real and imagined, is within God’s scope, then we must know where the boundaries are, where the land ends and the sea begins; in other words, to know God we must know of those who live at the frontier, the extreme edge. Amalek represents more than the worst of humanity, his totality is the worst characteristic of humanity. In short, he is, as Ramban would say, a typology of evil. So the nation of Amalek cannot be redeemed, because it is mythic.
Teshuvah is for real people, not paradigms. No one on earth is pure anything. That’s why Amalek must be and can be erased. It’s not about erasing a people as it is about erasing a deed, an attitude. Only real nations and people can redeem themselves. Redemption from evil is possible in real people because each of us contains all the aspects of the divine and they, in their dynamic, speak to each other within us. The best part of ourselves can bring our imperfections to a higher level. When we speak of Amalek we speak of a purity non-existent in humanity.
When we choose someone as an enemy, we are energized in our hatred, because it gives our lives purpose and meaning; it helps us to define our identity. We accuse the other of whatever we find disgusting–do you remember Pharaoh saying that the Israelite women breed like animals? Well, the Midrash claims that Amalek cut off the penises of the Jews and threw them in the air to shove them up the nose of God! Other sources claim the Amalekites sodomized the men. The focus on the male organ may be found in the word for male in Hebrew: rfz. It is the instrument not only of reproduction but of memory. Each generation must remember what has come before. All nations and individuals fear one thing: being forgotten, blotted out. Freud’s notion of castration anxiety may be relevant in understanding why prejudice often focuses on the sexuality of the “other.”
Look at the riddle in the last sentence, where it says to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven–don’t forget!” How can you erase memory and not forget? To get back to this Shabbat and the first question–what shall we erase and what shall we never forget? A glimpse of the answer appeared when I was in Germany last month for a conference of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Just as being in Israel is like no other place for a Jew, so is being in Germany. You come in friendship to such a conference, but talk about remembering–every German word, the signs commanding, “Achtung!”, is a slap you don’t want to feel. A fellow conference member, a German of about 45 took me to a nearby Jewish cemetery. The last grave was dated 1928, the first 150 years before. Many had died in battle in World War I. My guide thought I would find the graves interesting. How could I tell him what I could never forget, that these Jews who had died before the Holocaust were blessed with ignorance?
There were many young Jews from Leo Baeck College in London, not so different from our own young people. They expressed weariness and impatience in discussing the Holocaust with Germans. Many of the young Germans felt the same way–“Get over it” seemed to be the message from the young. What is the desire to forget about? It’s a child’s way of dealing with the past, the child who does not know that each of us is the sum total of everything that has happened since the beginning of time. We may forget but we are not untouched. Our moment bears every second of the past. If I do not let myself fall asleep and forget what has happened, if I goad and allow myself to change and learn from what has happened, I have a chance to do better than what has happened in the past.
Most of the young Jews not only didn’t want connection to the Holocaust, they didn’t want to claim Israel as part of their identity. Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians has forfeited its right to be part of us, they said. Don’t forget that for all their lives Israel has been the conquering nation over the Palestinians. Israel’s recent history has obscured for them the key reason for its existence: six million of us wouldn’t have died if we’d had a place to go.
Blotting out the memory–how can we do that and not forget? It means that when I sat with blond German converts to Islam, I had to blot out the memory of the violence done to my people fifty years ago, maybe in the very place we were talking. Don’t misunderstand. I will never forget their suffering, nor will I forget their blood on this land. But I had to sit with the “other,” and find my bridge to them, to make an “us.” This is how I understand erasing memory. Memory must not keep us from forgiving each other. I cannot blame you for what your father did to my mother. I must see you for who you are. The text is purposely ambiguous, a plea to blot out the memory of such horror, to start fresh, and to break the cycle Amalek began of breeding evil. Animosity breeds animosity–God forbid that the legacy of the Holocaust should spawn the evil of hatred.
I wrote this sermon before the tragedy that has taken four lives and injured scores of others in Tel Aviv. Hamas has taken us by surprise again and I’m enraged. I don’t want to put on a costume tomorrow night and drink; my head is clear with a dry, ringing rage and I want to hurt them, blot out the enemy. But my tradition teaches me what to do at this moment. For so long we have lived as powerless strangers, mistrusted and often despised, yet we coped by study, prayer, and good deeds. We’re a serious people.
But one day a year we close the book and say, “Enough about our struggle and pain as a minority. We’ll remember that life is full of surprises. Purim is about a day marked for Jewish genocide that turned out to be a day of our rejoicing. Tonight we’ll turn things upside down, too, and laugh and forget our sorrow in silliness.” Purim is about coping with what is impossible to bear. Maybe that’s why the rabbis said even when all the other holidays are no longer necessary, Purim will remain, because in this life human beings will always need laughter.
Being a Jew means you live in the world with open eyes and an open heart. It means that I know we have to continue to sit with those who are different from us, even those we hate and who hate us, because if we keep talking we may become less “other” and become “someone.” How can I even talk about that tonight? By letting Purim show me the absurd aspect of life. Once, when the Baal Shem Tov, may his memory protect us, heard of a pogrom in a neighboring village he immediately clapped his hands and began to dance. His disciples thought he had gone mad and asked him what he was doing. He said, “The way to release the forces of good is to bang against the evil shell to break it and let the light shine free. Clap, dance, sing, against the darkness!”
If we mute ourselves this Purim, they will have won a double victory by taking away one of our ramparts of survival. Every year we will be vulnerable to this. Tomorrow night we’ll gather our light together and make this Purim even louder and stronger and merrier than last year. But all through it we will never forget our dear ones who were killed this morning in Tel Aviv.
We will not let darkness stop us and we will not call Hamas Amalek. We will know that Amalek is still alive and well, unfortunately, in the Arab world, in the Jewish world, and everywhere that human beings strive and fight among themselves. As Jews we will pray for the day Amalek is blotted out, and we won’t forget our non-Jewish friends who also pray for that day, too.