Daily Israel Report

Judaism: Zachor: Remember Forever

The appropriate Jewish response.
Published: Wednesday, March 12, 2008 8:10 PM


Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were exiting from Egypt: how he chanced upon you on the way, and attacked you by smiting the weak who were straggling behind you, when you were tired and exhausted, and he did not fear God. And it will be, when HaShem your God gives you respite from all your surrounding enemies in the Land which HaShem your God gives you as an inheritance to inherit - eradicate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Every year, on Shabbat Zachor - the Shabbat of Remembrance, the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim - we
Amalek’s attack against us in the Sinai Desert, scant days after the Exodus, seems like a minor skirmish.
read these three verses as the Maftir, the concluding section of the Torah reading. To be sure, remembering Amalek is appropriate in the run-up to Purim, commemorating the attempt of Amalek’s descendant, Haman, to complete his ancestor’s evil work. But in a way, it seems puzzling: sure, we Jews have long memories. But Amalek’s attack against us in the Sinai Desert, scant days after the Exodus, seems like a minor skirmish. Why, of all our battles, does God command us to recall this one eternally?

To answer this, let us look at the Torah’s account of the battle - the portion that constitutes the Torah reading for Purim morning (this year being Purim meshulash, in Jerusalem it is the Maftir reading for Shabbat, the 15th of Adar II):

Amalek came and fought against Israel in Rephidim. And Moshe said to Joshua: ‘Choose men for us, and go out fighting against Amalek; tomorrow I will be standing on the peak of the hill, the staff of God in my hand’. And Joshua did as Moshe told him, to fight against Amalek; and Moshe, Aaron, and Hur ascended to the peak of the hill. And it was that when Moshe would raise his hand, Israel would prevail, and when he would rest his hand, Amalek would prevail. But Moshe’s hands were heavy, so they took a stone and put it beneath him, and he sat on it, with Aaron and Hur supporting his hands - one holding one hand, the other holding the other hand; and his hands remained faithful until sunset. And Joshua weakened Amalek and his nation with the sword’s blade.

Then HaShem said to Moshe: ‘Write this as a remembrance in the Book, and place it in Joshua’s ears; because I will utterly eradicate the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens.’ So Moshe built an altar and called it ‘HaShem is my Banner [or Miracle]’, saying: ‘Because the hand is on HaShem’s Throne - HaShem’s war against Amalek from generation to generation.’” (Exodus 17:8-17)

This laconic account - just nine verses long - is remarkable not for what it tells us, but for what it does not tell us: When exactly did Amalek first attack us? How many Amalekites fought? How many Jews fought? How long did the battle last? How many casualties were there on each side? On all these details the Torah is silent (which is in marked contrast to the detailed accounts of other wars in the Tanach). But since the Torah does not tell us, these details are clearly unimportant: apparently, what was important was not the number of Jewish war dead, but the fact that Amalek wanted to exterminate us all.

The Targum Yonatan gives an interesting rendering of this episode:

Amalek came from a southern land, and jumped 1,600 mil [about 1,600 km/1,000 miles] in a single night for the sake of the fight that had been going on between Esau and Jacob. He came and launched a war against Israel in Rephidim. He took and killed people from the tribe of Dan, who were not protected by the Clouds of Glory because of the idolatry that was in their midst. And Moshe said to Joshua: ‘Choose men for us who are brave, strong in mitzvot, and victorious in war; and go out from the protection of the Clouds of Glory to wage war against Amalek’s camps; 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 God’s miracles were performed in my hand.’ And Joshua did as Moshe told him, to fight against Amalek; and Moshe, Aaron, and Hur ascended to the peak of the hill. And it was that when 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; and because he wanted to fast, they took a stone and put it beneath him, and he sat on it, with Aaron and Hur supporting his hands - one holding one hand, the other holding the other hand; and his hands remained spread in faithful prayer and fasting until sunset. And Joshua smashed Amalek by chopping off the heads of his nation’s warriors by the word of HaShem, by killing them by the sword.

Then HaShem said to Moshe: ‘Write this as a remembrance in the ancient Book of the Elders, and place these words in Joshua’s ears; because I will utterly eradicate the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens.’ So Moshe built an altar and called it ‘The Word of HaShem is my Banner [or Miracle], because it is a banner [or miracle] that moved its place for me.’ And he said: ‘Because the Word of HaShem has sworn by His Throne of Glory that He, by His Word, will wage war against the House of Amalek, and will exterminate them from all three abodes - the abode of this world, the abode of the Mashiach, and the abode of the World to Come.’”

What message is Yonatan ben Uziel trying to convey in this rendering?

See how they hate us. In every generation - not just the original generation of Amalek, but throughout history. Lest anyone mistakenly believe that Amalek reacted to a chance encounter, Yonatan ben Uziel tells us that he was
Lest we think that Amalek is only against Zionists, but not against Jews, a millennium after his initial attack his descendants are still trying to exterminate us in exile in Persia.
willing to travel across a thousand miles of desert in a single night, deliberately to come upon us, just to try to exterminate us. And lest anyone think that Amalek had a personal gripe against us - know that he came to intervene in a dispute between us and our twin brother Esau, Amalek’s grandfather (Genesis 36:10-12) - a dispute that Amalek wantonly interfered in.

And know that Amalek’s hatred of us began with the animosity that his grandfather, Esau, felt for his twin brother, Israel. And know that even as God commands us to exterminate Amalek, He will also eventually destroy Esau. The prophet Isaiah graphically prophesies the eventual destruction of Edom - Esau’s later name: “Draw near, O nations, to hear; and nations, hearken: ...My sword in Heaven is sated - behold, it will descend on Edom, and upon the nation with whom I contend, for judgment. HaShem’s sword will be filled with blood, satiated with fat... because of HaShem’s sacrifice in Bozrah and great slaughter in the land of Edom.... From generation to generation it shall be waste, and for all eternities no one shall pass through it.” (Isaiah 34:1-10)

And the phrase “from generation to generation” refers back to Amalek: “This refers to Moshe’s curse, ‘HaShem’s war against Amalek from generation to generation’ - from Moshe’s generation to [King] Saul’s generation, and from then to Mordechai’s generation, and from then to the generation of King Mashiach.” (Rashi to Isaiah 34:10)

Lest anyone think that, given time, Amalek would realise the futility of conflict, half a millennium later he was still trying to exterminate us in Israel in the days of King Saul. And lest we think that Amalek only wants to drive us out of Israel, that he would accept us if only we would be exiled from our land, lest we think that Amalek is only against Zionists, but not against Jews, a millennium after his initial attack his descendants are still trying to exterminate us in exile in Persia.

And lest anyone think that Amalek only wants to destroy the religious among us, lest anyone believe that assimilation will bring us respite, know that he attacked not the religious or the Torah scholars, but those of the tribe of Dan who were the furthest from Torah.

And should you desire to know who has the greatest obligation to fight Amalek, never think that if you are a Torah scholar, a yeshiva student, then you are absolved of this duty. Those who fight must be those “men... who are brave, strong in mitzvot, and victorious in war.” And never believe that it is forbidden to leave the cloistered walls of the yeshiva to defend your fellow-Jews: “Go out from the protection of the Clouds of Glory to wage war against Amalek’s camps.”

And never think that fellow-Jews are only those who are members of the same community, who follow the same Rebbe; and don’t ever think that the non-religious - even the idolaters among us - are not fellow-Jews: risk your life in battle, deliberately leave the protection of the Clouds of Glory, to avenge the blood even of Jewish idolaters, and to defend the lives of those who have not fallen.

And know that whenever and wherever Israel is under attack, even if only the idolaters are under attack, then even a Moshe who delays retaliation by even a single day will find his hands failing, will find his prayer, his ability to fast, his very faith, weakened.

And know that whenever and wherever Israel is attacked, whether on the way towards Israel, whether within Israel, or whether in exile, the appropriate Jewish response is not to conciliate the murderous attacker, not to try to make peace with the leaders of the enemy nation, but to chop off the enemy warriors’ heads.

And know that our victory in war rests upon our ability to fight, upon our being brave, strong in mitzvot, and victorious in war: keeping Shabbat and kashrut, and praying, and putting on tefillin every day are as important factors in victory as is bravery. And behind all stand the merit of our three Fathers and four Mothers.

And know that those who try to exterminate us will themselves be exterminated - utterly, irrevocably, eternally.
Irony of ironies: the only way that anyone will even be aware that they existed will be that our history mentions them.
They will be consigned to oblivion, having no remembrance in this world or the next. And irony of ironies: the only way that anyone will even be aware that they existed will be that our history mentions them. Had it not been for the Torah, who would ever have heard of Amalek or of his descendant Haman? They are remembered solely by those whom they wanted to exterminate, and who instead exterminated them, measure for measure.

And just as victory over Amalek is crucial, so too is it crucial to “write this as a remembrance in the Book, and place it in Joshua’s ears” - specifically, to inscribe it in the Book of the Elders. The leaders of Israel must perforce be educated in this war against Amalek, lest they forget its eternal messages, and end up trying to placate evil, to co-exist with murderers, and thereby collaborate in the extermination of Jews.

And just as Amalek attacked us when we were at peace in the desert - after 210 years of exile and slavery we wanted nothing more than to make our way back home - so too, measure for measure, when Amalek will think himself at peace, we are commanded to attack him: “When HaShem your God gives you respite from all your surrounding enemies in the Land which HaShem your God gives you as an inheritance to inherit - eradicate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.” Do not wait for him to make war before going out to obliterate him: attack him when you are living in peace in Israel. Amalek, through his murderous attack on us, has forfeited any right to his own peace and security. And, as Yonatan ben Uziel paraphrases this final exhortation: “And it will be, when HaShem your God gives you respite from all those who hate you surrounding the Land which HaShem your God gives you as an inheritance to inherit - eradicate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. And even in the days of the Mashiach the king - do not forget.”