How to destroy Amalek

February 24, 2010

11 Adar 5770

On this coming Shabbat, Jews are traditionally commanded to hear the recitation of Deuteronomy 25:17-19 (“Parshat Zachor”), which calls upon Jews to remember the deeds of Amalek and wipe out their memory.

This is a difficult and challenging idea for anyone who maintains the conviction that God treasures humanity and does not judge people based on group identity.   Furthermore, the reading of Zachor has the potential to reflect, and exacerbate, the kind of fear and suspicion that does not serve the Jewish community well.  Every year, many rabbis find creative ways to re-explain the meaning of Amalek with reference to the qualities traditionally associated with Amalek: persecution of the weak and vulnerable, cynicism, etc.  I would like to suggest another method of interpretation.

The story of Amalek is first found in Exodus 17:8-16, and the Midrash points out that immediately before, the Israelites, despite all the miracles they had witnessed, asked “Is God in our midst or not?”.  Thus, the attack by Amalek was sent to correct this attitude.  Just as these interpretations link the story of Amalek to the previous topic, I suggest that, similarly, we interpret the last phrase of the story, “God has a war with Amalek for all generations” by looking at what comes after  the story: Moses’ father-in-law Yitro learns about God’s liberation of Israel, and the revelation of the Torah is recorded.  The Israelites are reminded (as my wife points out) to appreciate God’s guidance more than they had before, and that God shows the way to correct the traits exemplified by Amalek.  Fundamentally, the war against evil is the struggle to make goodness more real to everyone, beginning with ourselves. 



4 Responses to “How to destroy Amalek”

  1. Shlomo Says:

    There is the koranic approach, the struggle with Amalek is an internal struggle, like the jihad against the evil inclination.

    • chovevamim Says:

      An excellent comparison that shows why no religious or ethnic group should be automatically dismissed as an enemy. I know many Muslims seriously accept this, but I don’t know enough about the Koran to know whether that understanding is in the text.

      I would add that any religion that wants to reach new understandings of problematic texts should be expected to do so in good faith and internalize its new understandings, and not treat the issues posed by such texts as a simple public relations problem. We’re entitled to expect this of Muslims (and any other religion) and must expect it of ourselves.

  2. Ayelet Says:

    Your wife sounds like a smart lady 🙂

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