Judaism: Shabbat Zachor is Here - Learn All About It
“On the second [Shabbat of the four special Shabbatot, we read] ‘Remember what Amalek did to you…’ (Deuteronomy 25:17-19); and for the Haftarah, we read ‘Thus said HaShem, Master of Legions: I have remembered what Amalek did to Israel…’ (1 Samuel 15).
And which is the second Shabbat? – Whichever precedes the week in which Purim will fall, even it will fall on a Friday” (Megillah 30a).
The Torah records Amalek’s birth to Timna, the concubine of Eliphaz, the son of Esau (Genesis 36). We hear nothing from Amalek until a couple of centuries later, immediately after the Exodus, before the Giving of the Torah: “Then Amalek came, and he fought with Israel in Rephidim” (Exodus 17:8).
With this unprovoked attack in the desert, when we were “tired and weary” (Deuteronomy 25:18), “tired and weary from Egyptian slavery and the rigours of travel” (Targum Yonatan to Deuteronomy 25:18, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 44), Amalek began his eternal career as our perpetual enemy. This was more than just a minor desert skirmish: following the Ten Plagues and the destruction of the Egyptian Army in the Red Sea, all the nations of the world were in awe of G-d and His nation; Amalek’s attack on us destroyed that aura, opening the path for all subsequent nations to dare to attack us.
Thus Amalek earned himself the status of the epitome of evil, of Israel’s and G-d’s most implacable enemy. Hence G-d’s assurance to Moshe that one day, “I will utterly exterminate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens” (Exodus 17:14). And forty years later, G-d commanded us “exterminate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:19). For sure, G-d “will utterly exterminate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens”; and we are the agents by which He will do it.
Though Israel won the encounter in the desert, so traumatic was it that a year and a quarter later, when the spies wanted to frighten the nation off the idea of entering the Land of Israel, they threatened them that “Amalek dwells in the Negev [southern] region” (Numbers 13:29). The threat was enough to frighten the nation off.
More than a century later, when we were already well-established in the Land of Israel, Amalek allied himself with Eglon, king of Moab, when he oppressed us (Judges 3:12-13). Following this, Amalek was allied for decades with Midian and the easterners in oppressing and eventually invading Israel, until the judge Gideon defeated them in battle (Judges 6:2-7:25).
Amalek continued with his constant enmity, varying between oppression and petty harassment, always allying himself with Israel’s enemies. And when Saul was anointed first King of Israel, the enmity at last exploded into total war.
King Saul reigned for just two years, beginning his reign 394 years after the conquest of the Land of Israel. (This is the almost-universally accepted chronology, although the Abarbanel, commenting on 1 Samuel 13:1, argues that Saul reigned for 22 years.) His reign was to end ignominiously – the Israeli Army in headlong retreat from the Philistines on the battlefields, King Saul and his three sons slain in war, the Philistines celebrating their victory over Israel, Israel utterly demoralised. King Saul’s immediate legacy was a civil war in Israel, with the supporters of his one remaining son Ish-Boshet fighting the supporters of the as-yet-uncrowned David, a bloody civil war that would ravage the nation for the next seven years.
But earlier in his reign, Saul had won several important military victories; and one of these was his defeat of the Amalekites, the account of which is the Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor (1 Samuel 15:2-34). This was the last major military conflict between Israel and the Amalekites (although their few survivors still took part sporadically in a few more skirmishes).
The Tanakh, then, records three major confrontations between Israel and Amalek: the first was when Amalek attacked us just after the Exodus; the second was the war in Israel under King Saul, 434 years later; and the third confrontation was 523 years after that in Persia, when Amalek’s descendent Haman tried to exterminate us.
Hazal, the Sages, used the readings on and before Purim to link these three.
This Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, the Maftir is the biblical command to “remember what Amalek did to you when you were on your way out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). The Haftarah is the account of King Saul’s war against Amalek.
The Torah-reading on the morning of Purim this coming Thursday (or Friday in Jerusalem, Jericho, and Shushan) is the account in Exodus of Amalek’s attack just after the Exodus. And on Wednesday night and Thursday morning (or Thursday night and Friday morning in Jerusalem, Jericho, and Shushan), we will read the Megillat Esther.
Three different confrontations, separated by centuries, and each with a distinct message of how to confront evil.
In the first confrontation, “Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moshe said to Joshua: Choose men for us, and go out to fight Amalek; tomorrow I will be standing on the head of the hill with the Staff of G-d in my hand… And whenever Moshe would raise his hand Israel would prevail, and when he would relax his hand Amalek would prevail. But Moshe’s hands were heavy…” (Exodus 17:8-11).
The Mishnah (Rosh ha-Shanah) and the Midrash (Tanhuma, Beshallach 27) comment: “Do Moshe’s hands then win the war or lose the war? – Rather, whenever Israel would look upwards and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would prevail; and if not, they would fall”.
But the Targum Yonatan gives a more unsettling idea. It renders: “Moshe said to Joshua:…Tomorrow I will be standing and fasting, invoking the merit of the Patriarchs, the heads of the nation, and the merit of the Matriarchs, who rule over the hills, with the staff by which G-d’s miracles were performed in my hand… And whenever Moshe would raise his hands in prayer, the House of Israel would prevail, and when he would rest his hands from prayer, the House of Amalek would prevail. But Moshe’s hands were heavy because he had delayed the war to the following day, instead of hastening to save Israel on the same day, so he was unable to raise them in prayer…”.
Learn from this that whenever and wherever Israel is under attack, then even a Moshe who delays retaliation by even a single day will find his hands failing, will find his prayer, his very faith, weakened.
In the second confrontation, when we were already sovereign in our own Land, King Saul led us into battle. Saul cut an impressive figure, but he had one major failing: he was excessively humble and merciful. So much so, indeed, that when he and his army defeated the Amalekites on the battleground, he had mercy on Agag their king, and on their herds and flocks (1 Samuel 15:8-9). He reasoned: “Even if the men sinned – then how did the women sin? And even if the women sinned – then how did the children sin? And even if the children sinned – then how did the animals sin? Thereupon a Heavenly Voice came down and said to him: Saul, do not be more righteous than your Creator!” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 44).
When King Saul had reached the city of the Amalekites, he had seen that the Kenites, descendants of Yitro, were intermingled with them, so he warned them: “Go, turn away, go down from among the Amalekites, lest I eliminate you together with them! And you did kindness for all the Children of Israel when they came up from Egypt” (1 Samuel 15:6). Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (ibid.) comments on this: “Did Yitro do kindness for all the Children of Israel? Did he not do kindness solely for Moshe? – So from here you learn that anyone who does kindness for one of the leaders of Israel is as though he had done kindness for all the Children of Israel”.
The obvious corollary – which King Saul should have understood – is that anyone who does kindness for one of the leaders of Amalek is as though he had done kindness for all the Amalekites. By sparing Agag their king out of misplaced mercy, it was as though he had mercy on the entire Amalekite nation.
Learn from this that G-d defines kindness and mercy. When King Solomon said “Don’t be overly righteous” (Ecclesiastes 7:16), he was referring precisely to this: “Don’t be overly righteous – more righteous than your Creator” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:1). G-d, Who created mercy and justice, is the best Definer of mercy and justice.
In the third major confrontation between Israel and Amalek, Haman convinced Achashverosh to decree extermination on all the Jews of the Persian Empire. Esther got that decree of genocide overturned, and a new royal decree went forth, “that the king allowed the Jews in every single city to organise and to defend their lives, to exterminate, to kill, and to destroy every armed force of any nation or province who threatened them – women and children – and to plunder their loot” (Esther 8:11).
In the event, the Jews killed five hundred of the enemy in Shushan the capital, as well as Haman’s ten sons (9:6-10); in the rest of the Persian Empire they killed 75,000 of the enemy (9:16).
Learn from this that when threatened with extermination, we have no obligation to wait until the sword is at our throat to kill the enemy. Though Haman, his sons, and the Persian Empire did not kill a single Jew, it was enough that they planned to and intended to; they fully deserved the treatment meted out to an enemy who comes to exterminate us.
We do not have to wait until the Persian tyrant has launched the missiles at Israel in order to retaliate and destroy him. The leaders of the nation have an obligation to defend the nation, to exterminate those who come to exterminate us before they manage even to begin their evil designs.
And the fourth and final confrontation with Amalek will be the most momentous of all. The Maftir for this Shabbat admonishes: “And it will be that when HaShem your G-d will grant you respite from all your surrounding enemies, in the Land which HaShem your G-d gives you as a heritage to inherit – exterminate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:19).
Learn from here that when all other enemies have either been vanquished or have made peace with us; when there will be no more war; when we will have realised our millennial dream of universal peace – then go out and annihilate Amalek. The Targum Yonatan paraphrases: “And it will be, when HaShem your G-d will grant you respite from all those who hate you surrounding the Land which HaShem your G-d gives you as a heritage to inherit – exterminate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. And even in the days of the Mashiach the king – do not forget”.
Because the days of Mashiach – those glorious, halcyon days – will not be for bloodthirsty murderers to enjoy. That will be the time for us to complete the story of Esther for all time – to enthrone God on His Throne, in the days when “HaShem will be One and his Name will be One” (Isaiah 8:10).