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Remembering Amelak and Paying it Forward

03/08/2023 04:35:59 PM


Zachary Bernstein

In every generation, one must see oneself as if they had personally left Egypt.

These words may be familiar to us from the Passover hagaddah. On Passover, through our reenactment of the first Seder, we try to transport ourselves back in time to the Exodus. This is a bold but delightful exercise. Bold, because it’s hard to imagine living through such miracles and redemption, but delightful because at its core, the Passover story is one of joy and success. 

Today, our Torah reading, specifically the maftir, asks us to do something much harder. We are asked to remember something we know all to well, and are sometimes desperate to ignore.

Since this week is the Shabbat before Purim, we read a special maftir reading, called Zachor. This reading tells us to “remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you left Egypt.” Amalek ambushed the Israelites militarily, attacking specifically those who were weak, tired, defenseless, lingering at the back. We read this on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman was descended from the Amalek tribe, and we have in this reading the commandment to erase the name of Amalek. From this we get the origin of drowning out Haman’s name on Purim, and the tradition of reading this Torah reading on the Shabbat before Purim.

If we look closely at the reading, we see a few redundancies. The first is the command itself. In the first verse of the reading, we are commanded Zachor – remember. The final words of the reading are lo tishcach – do not forget. This echo emphasizes how incredibly important it is to remember this story.

If in each generation we must remember the Exodus, in each generation we must also remember the low points. The story did not end when we left Egypt. Amalek’s attack is part of our story, as today’s reading emphatically makes clear.

Jewish tradition often calls on us to remember. We are called to remember that we were strangers in Egypt. We are commanded to remember the Shabbat day. Four times a year we say Yizkor, remembering those whom we have loved and lost. 

Memory is often, in Jewish tradition, used as a motivation for action. By reminding us that we were once strangers in Egypt, the Torah commands us to treat kindly the stranger in our midst. The commandment to remember the Shabbat day leads into the requirement to abstain from work and from forcing others to work. And in Yizkor, we pledge to channel our loved ones’ memories into charitable acts and into shaping a better world.

Snother redundancy is that the first verse of the reading also contains an unnecessary word – lecha, to you. Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you left Egypt. It’s a helpful word, sure, but it would have still been pretty clear if we were just commanded to remember what Amalek did on the way when we left Egypt. We can interpret this word, therefore, as extending beyond its limited or intended context. Rather, we can read this as a commandment to remember what Amalek did to us. The Torah, after all, is addressed to each generation. We are still its subjects, its recipients, its covenantal partners. So, therefore, the Torah is commanding us to remember what Amalek did to us, as well.

But what did Amalek do to us, specifically? And what is this memory calling us to do, besides for making a lot of noise during Purim?

There is Amalek in every generation. This is why we are commanded to remember what Amalek did “to you.” In every generation, just as we reexperience the Exodus at Passover, we reexperience the attack by Amalek. In every generation, there are those who seek to prey on the weakest, most tired, most beaten down members of our society. It is not just a moment in history, but an ever-repeating historical phenomenon that the Torah is forcing us to remember and confront.

But the Torah misses one key point. It’s not just Amalek that we must zachor, remember. After all, Amalek rears its head in every generation. It’s impossible to forget Amalek. However, it is all too easy to ignore Amalek, so, we need to remember the people that Amalek preys on. Remembering Amalek, remembering Amalek’s attack on the weakest of us, needs to spur us to action. The commandment to remember must drive us towards the commandment to blot out Amalek from the face of the earth. And we do that by remembering, and by uplifting, the very people whom Amalek tried to destroy.

Remembering the Exodus is easy. We sing songs, we get together with friends or family, we eat, and we experience joy over what God has done for us. Remembering what Amalek did is hard. We are very aware of the Amaleks in our world, who prey on the vulnerable, but it’s so easy to close our eyes. It hurts to look at Amalek’s actions and Amalek’s victims, sometimes. And so we look away. 

But we can’t look away. We have to erase Amalek from the face of the earth! We cannot erase what we choose not to see. We have to stare this brand of evil right in the face. Erasing requires an honest appraisal of the bad in our world. And then, of course, we erase it by battling against it. 

We see this also in the Purim story. In the 9th chapter of Esther, once the threat to the Jews has been defeated, Esther and Mordechai write down the events that had transpired, and call on all Jews to observe the date every year “as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.” [Esther 9:22] This reference to sending gifts to the poor comes seemingly out of nowhere. This is actually the only reference to poor people anywhere in the book of Esther; it’s not as though economic inequality has been a recurring theme throughout the tale. How did this commandment get inserted into Esther and Mordechai’s enactment of the holiday of Purim?

Esther and Mordechai had been in a position of great vulnerability, persecuted by a descendant of Amalek, and then they emerged from that danger into positions of power. Immediately, they realize that this miracle is not just to be celebrated with food and drink, and is not just an occasion for swapping cookies and candies. Rather, they also require Jews to remember others who are vulnerable in society. The Jews of Persia were no longer vulnerable to Haman’s savagery, but there were still vulnerable people in their midst, and it was important to them to pay it forward. 

Nowadays, our understanding of societal inequalities is more complicated than in the overly-exaggerated, black-and-white book of Esther. We recognize that privilege and vulnerability exist on a spectrum, in relative amounts, and are based on many different factors and identities. And yet, we recognize that the fundamental pattern remains – like in the Torah, and like in the Megillah, there are Amalekites who attack the vulnerable in our society. 

Purim is fun. Purim is meant to be fun. And we should cherish the fun of Purim. We should embrace the humor and the chaos. We should enjoy our festive meals and our hamantaschen. But we have to remember that even after their lives were spared, Esther and Mordechai were thinking about matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor. We must be sure to make this a part of our Purim practice, as well. After all, erasing the name of Amalek from the Megillah is only a start. We must erase the name of Amalek from the face of the earth, in every generation, like the generation of the Exodus and like the Jews of Persia. In every generation, we must see ourselves as personally committed to this fight. 

Shabbat Shalom, and Purim Sameach.

Mon, July 15 2024 9 Tammuz 5784