One of the beauties of reading and rereading Torah is how our understanding of specific narratives, laws and even sentences or words can change annually. Take this Shabbat, the one immediately preceding Purim, for example. Known as Shabbat Zakhor, we read a special Maftir Aliyah, one that reminds of what the Amalekites did to our ancestors as they wandered in the desert. They did not confront Israel from the front where, presumably, they were strongest. According to Torah, Amalek came from behind, killing those who moved slowest, who were most vulnerable. As a result, Amalek becomes the paradigmatic enemy of the Israelites and of Am Yisrael throughout history. The end of the special maftir this Shabbat commands us to wipe out the memory of Amalek from beneath Heaven. In wiping them out, we are also commanded to commit them to our eternal memory. What does it mean to blot out the memory of Amalek? To not forget? How is it possible to wipe out all memory and to remember at the same time?
Rashi understands our maftir literally: We are to eliminate any and all evidence of the Amalekites existence: the humans, the property and even the animals. Rashi’s reading is based on Samuel where King Saul ultimately loses his throne to David due to his failure to carry out God’s instruction. Saul leaves the King of Amalek alive and the people to keep the animals, purportedly to make offerings to God. There is something visceral both about the original text in Torah and in Rashi’s explanation. Our modern mindset rejects the active, physical, complete nature of this understanding.
I have to admit: there were times when my own discomfort with literalness of the command to eliminate Amalek gave way to a desire to see the haters of Israel and the Jewish People disappear ,in a very real way. Sitting in a “sealed” room during the First Gulf War, wearing my gas mask, knowing there were people around the world dancing on their rooftops in celebration of our being attacked, part of me wanted them to be blotted out, to be erased. And, frankly, there is a part of me that always remembers that feeling. Even though reason gives way, my modern sensibility prevails and my humanity returns, hatred breeds hatred and there is a little part of me that wonders what would have happened if Amalek really was completely wiped out long ago.
Ramban and the Pesikta Rabbati, however, can be interpreted to read the passage figuratively. If the literal reading of the text is one of vengeance and murder, the figurative approach lets us consider what Amalek represents: the impulse to hate, to take advantage of the weak, the forgotten, the easy target. It also demands us to act in opposition to Amalek: To love Humanity, to sanctify God’s Name in this world, to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Defeating hatred and evil required greater emphasis on love, on understanding, on communicating, on building. Ramban argues that as long as Amalek is present in the world, God’s name and God’s Holy Seat remain incomplete. Obviously, once Amalek disappears from the world, the unification of God’s Name and Seat in this world are completed. That time is what we call The Messianic Era, the time of Eternal World Peace. The question is:what are each of us doing to bring about this Era?
This week, I sat in Jerusalem with an exceptional Rabbi who suggested we start a Gemach, A Loving-Kindness Fund, together, one that will bring something real, something good, to individuals who need it. On my next trip, we are going to choose an area not currently being taken care of, a population not being cared for, and start collecting so we can help. One possibility, based on models of Gemachim in Israel that collect wedding dresses for brides who cannot afford them and projects in the US that collect prom dresses for girls who cannot afford them, is to collect bat mitzvah and bridesmaid dresses and make them available to those in need. It is small but concrete and is the anti-Amalek: it supports those in need rather than taking advantage of them.
This Shabbat, as we hear the words of the Maftir of Zakhor, we must take time to think, in very concrete terms, about what we are doing to be the antithesis of Amalek. What are we doing to increase good in the world? What are we doing to support those who fall through the cracks, who fall behind, who are attacked for no other reason than they are weak and forgotten? And how can we do more?
As soon as the focus of our Gemach is determined, I hope you will join us in the effort. I hope you will be inspired, as I was this week, by my friend, colleague and teacher, Rabbah Tamar Elad Applebaum, who suggested the idea of a joint-Gemach. Similarly, I hope you will be inspired by my teacher, Danny Siegel, to find ways you can be the anti-Amalek and contribute to bringing about the completion of God’s Honored Throne in this world. Finally, please share with me your own projects so I can spread the word and invite others to join you. In so doing, we will all eliminate the memory of Amalek - of hatred, of suffering, of advantage-taking - and eternally remember the needs to bring more love and humanity into God’s Divine creation.