Erev Shabbat Message From Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg

Posted by The Jewish Center on 02/19/2021

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Purim 21 Blot out Amalek
On Purim, we are rightly appalled by the fact that Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people "young and old, children and women, on a single day"
But we seldom notice that we were commanded to do the same thing to Haman's people, to Amalek! This shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim, is called Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of Remembrance. We read a special section of the Torah, in which, God commands the Israelites:
תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח׃
"you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" (Deut. 25:19).
We learn from the Haftarah of Shabbat Zakhor that these verses were understood in a literal sense. The Prophet Samuel orders King Saul in God's name:  "Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!". In other words, we are instructed to commit genocide - to destroy the men, women and cattle of Amalek. This is profoundly morally problematic. Even at the time, King Saul did not fully carry out this order.
Our Rabbis have dealt with this difficult command in different ways. Two of the most important codifiers of Jewish law - The Sefardic rabbis Rabbi Ya'akov ben Asher in his Tur and Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Shulhan Arukh for Ashkenazim, both simply ignore this command altogether. They think it was a one-shot deal for Torah to command King Saul, and when he did not fulfill it, that was the end of the matter.
Perhaps we need to discern: What was Amalek's Sin? During the biblical period, we were attacked by many peoples. What was so awful about Amalek's attack? Why blot out the memory of Amalek, as opposed to other peoples who have attacked us throughout history?
Rabbi Yitzhak Abravanel and Rabbi Yitzhak Arama say that Amalek deviated from the norms of war. They attacked a weak, defenseless bunch of slaves on the road, just for the sake of attacking them. They had nothing to gain from the attack since the Israelites had just left Egypt; it would lead neither to improving their reputation as warriors nor to significant spoils.
It was an unjust war motivated by hatred. It is this irrational hatred that we are trying to root out, if we could only have killed off the original anti-Semites, maybe our lot would have been easier.
Other commentators, including many Hasidic masters, give an allegorical interpretation of the commandment to destroy Amalek. They said that Amalek does not refer to an actual group of people, but is a symbol of the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination. In other words, we are commanded to blot out evil in the world, not a physical people called Amalek.
Here is the explanation that resonates with me. It is a moral imperative to fear God.   Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Sofer emphasized the description of Amalek that they were "undeterred by fear of God" . Amalek attacked the Israelites immediately after God redeemed them from Egypt with signs and wonders; it shows that that the Amalekites had no fear of God.
That is why Exodus says that God will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation. It is, so to speak, a war between God and Amalek. The Torah verse does not stop here, it continues: Amalek cut down all the stragglers.
Prof Leibovitz reads this phrases together: because the Amalekites had no fear of G, they cut down all the stragglers. The litmus test for "fear of God" is one's attitude to the weak and the stranger. Amalek is the archetype of the Godless, who attack the weak because they are weak, who cut down the stragglers in every generation
We can understand the command as the command to fight against murderous anti-Semites. We can understand it as command to the struggle against evil in our own souls. We can understand it as the command to respond us to the needs of the weak and vulnerable.
In our day, this is perhaps the most important message of the Amalek story - not hatred of Amalek but aversion to their actions.