By David Cohen
On the Shabbat before Purim, the holiday on which we celebrate the foiling of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jewish people, the weekly Torah reading is supplemented with the Zachor (“Remember!”) reading (Deuteronomy 25:17 – 19) in which we are commanded to remember the evil of Amalek and to eradicate it from the face of the earth. This day is actually called Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. It is thought of as a special mitzvah of the Torah to hear the reading and thus remember. According to many Halachic authorities, it is an actual Biblical requirement for all men/people to hear the special Zachor reading.
Haman is said to be a descendent of Amalek and so the evil designs of each are very much connected. When the Israelites left Egypt, no nation dared pick a fight with them. Who would start up with a people whose God just defeated the mighty Egyptians with ten awesome plagues, and drowned the surviving few in the sea? Only Amalek, driven by profound hatred, came to wage battle. The special Zachor haftorah (I Samule 15:2-34) discusses G-d’s command to King Saul to destroy the people of Amalek. Saul did not obey this command and many say this is where he lost favor with God. In many ways we are left wrestling with Gods seemingly harsh command to wipe out every last one of the Amalekites. On the one hand how is this violence justice? On the other, by disobeying God, Saul essentially allowed Hamen, a descendant of Amelek, to continue his work. And were it not for Esther, he may have succeeded.
“Parshat Zachor” is the second of four special readings added during or immediately before the month of Adar (the other three being Shekalim, Parah and hachodesh). Clearly, the inclusion of the scroll of Esther and these supplemental readings must hold some significance. There were actually many “scrolls” or books left out, or edited out, of our yearly cycle of reading the Torah and these few stories were honored with a stature similar to Torah. Yet Zachor [remembrance] is a mitzvah that has made modern Jews uncomfortable. The natural desire to forget and be happy collides with the ongoing pain of memory and analysis and the sheer violence of the story. Modern people who are future-oriented stress the need to forgive. They argue that there will be no reconciliation as long as the memories of the cruelties and atrocities of the past are preserved and thrown in the face of those involved. “Forget and forgive” becomes the slogan. This argument can even take the form of an attack on the victims for keeping the memory alive. However, some believe that the primary lesson of Parashat Zachor is that very idea that true reconciliation comes through remembrance. According to this line of thought, a way of thinking central to the Jewish historical experience, confronting the evils of the past is the most powerful generator of moral cleansing and fundamental reconciliation.
I am reminded of this concept every time the Summer Olympics come around and the world refuses to accept this basic concept and officially remember the Munich tragedy. The rest of the world has never learned how to be happy and contemplative of evil at the same time. As Jews we know this is our past, our present, and future. In April this will be demonstrated in the most visible way we have in our calendar. In April, within the span of days and hours, we remember the Holocaust (Yom Hashoah), the Fallen soldiers and victims of terror (Yom Hazikaron), and then we celebrate our rise from those ashes in the ModernState of Israel (Yom Ha’atzmaut). We turn from abject mourning to joyous celebration at almost the passing of a minute – and we are ok with that. That is who we are. But more than that, we realize how important those two competing thoughts are. You cannot have sheer joy without understanding the pain of suffering.
Many believe that this is the message of Shabbat Zachor. You can remember the success of Esther, but you also must remember the suffering that Amalek caused and how by not “dealing” with that problem completely, it did not go away. Those who believe in the literal nature of biblical narrative often try to make Amalek into a “someone” whose descendants are still among us. Those who take a more figurative look at text and see biblical narrative as allegories and lessons for our lives, see Amalek as a symbol of evil and injustice that even Jews can learn from. Amelek’s evil was a particular kind of wrongdoing. Amalek didn’t just target the Israelites. He preyed on the weakest among us. He attacked those who had fallen to the back of the group traveling through the desert, those least able to defend themselves. For many, the message is to always REMEMBER those people. Always remember those weakest among us and protect them. We can even ask of the Israelites, why were those people not better protected? We may get some of the same practical answers we use today, but none the less – they were vulnerable, we did not look out for them well enough, and they suffered accordingly. We must both look at ourselves and our responsibility AND at the evil embodied by Amalek and know that there is always an Amalek. There is always a recession, a hurricane, and affliction, or yes even a person who preys on the weak. Are we up to the task to understand this? Are we up to being champions of Justice? Are we going to be that light unto the nations we were meant to be? Well if we read and take to heart Shabbat Zachor every year – we just may be.