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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Zachor - Remembering Amalek

זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק, בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים. אשר קרך בדרך, ויזנב בך כל הנחשלים אחריך, ואתה עיף ויגע; ולא ירא אלהים. והיה בהניח יהוה אלהיך לך מכל איביך מסביב, בארץ אשר יהוה אלהיך נתן לך נחלה לרשתה, תמחה את זכר עמלק מתחת השמים; לא תשכח.

(דברים כ"ה, י"ז-י"ט)

This is shabbat Zachor, the shabbat before Purim, when we read the portion of the Torah reminding us of Amalek:

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came out of Egypt. How he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land which the Lord your God gave you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

(Devarim 25, 17-19)

Like the proverbial elephant, the Jews are a people who do a lot of remembering, and forget (almost) nothing. Every shabbat meal we remember the Creation and the deliverance from Egypt; our holidays are there to remember events from the past; every day we remember our destroyed Temple and pray for it to be rebuilt; our garments act as reminders: the tzitzit reminds us of the 613 commandments; and nature itself performs the same function, as by witnessing a rainbow we remember the divine promise of never again flooding the earth. And yet the commandment to remember Amalek is puzzling. Why Amalek out of all the wars and people that tried to destroy us? Why this particular event?

Rashi's commentary on the story of Amalek in Shemot quotes a parable. A king took his young son upon his shoulders and embarked on a journey. Several times along the way, the son would see an object he fancied and ask his father to pick it up for him, and the father did. After a while, they came upon a stranger and the son asked him: have you seen my father? The father, angry at the son for forgetting who was carrying him and doing all the picking-up for him, let the son off his shoulders. A dog that came along bit the son.

The moral is obvious: Israel forgot God despite all the great things that He did for them and as a result God withdrew His protection for a while and Amalek came along and "bit" Israel. Remembering God when everything is fine is not difficult. Miracles in Egypt, parting of the Dead Sea, food falling from the sky every day; who can forget God when His good acts are so obvious? Yet at the first sign of difficulties in the desert, Israel starts to forget. It's harder to believe in God when things go wrong. Many of us have this notion of a benevolent God sitting in the sky and watching over us, a grandfatherly figure with a long, white beard that protects us from evil. So when evil strikes, we are surprised. We rebel against God and our belief is shaken. We cannot bridge the gap between our expectations of Him and the bad things that happen to us.

The remembering of Amalek is there to teach us that this is a mistaken view of the belief in God. We cannot begin to understand His ways in the world and why bad things happen to good people. We refuse to accept that God does evil (or, more accurately, what we perceive as evil) depite the fact that the prophets told us explicitly this is what He does: "I form the light and create darkness, I make peace, and create evil; I am the Lord that does all these things" (Yishayahu 45, 7). So when evil happens, we "forget" about God and ask: have you seen my Father? Sometimes, as happened with Amalek, God teaches us a lesson, a hard lesson. It is not the lesson that we are remembering with Zachor; it is the belief in God that we remember. Amalek's "bite" was a wake-up call to remind us that we should not waver in our belief in God, even in the face of harsh realities.

The commandment to remember Amalek can teach us also to beware of absolute truths when coming from the mouths of those that purport to know the link between God's ways and His reasons. All too easily, these people proclaim that "this was the will of God because...". A train hits a bus and children are killed? It was God's will because we don't check our mezuzot. An earthquake strikes? It's because there are homosexuals among us. The government declares its intention to evacuate the Gaza strip from Jews? This will not happen (hayo lo tihyeh, remember?), as it is not the will of God.

The story of Amalek teaches us that we cannot base our belief in God by imposing conditions: if we do X, then God will do Y, and vice versa. Israel made the mistake of asking "have you seen my Father" at the first sign of hardship. We should learn from that and instead of trying God, we should remember and pray for our belief in God to be absolute, regardless of His deeds in the world.

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