Shabbat Zachor Tetzaveh
By Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild
Feb 23, 2002, 12:00:00

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild
"Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot our the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget"

These few verses near the end of the book of Deuteronomy flesh out an earlier account in Exodus (17:8-16) where Joshua went out to battle against the Amalakites who had 'come and fought with Israel at Rephidim" The battle was hard and only when Moses' hands were held up by Hur and Aaron did Joshua prevail. And then, in the first reference in bible to the act of writing, God told Moses to 'inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" "Then Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-Nissi (God is my standard). And he said "Because a hand upon the throne of the Lord" The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages" The text is dense and almost beyond translation. Some of the words are hapax legomina, appearing only once in bible (e.g. kess). The reason why Amalek came and fought the Jews is never made clear, although the episode takes place immediately after a rebellion over water which itself was symbolic of a lack of faith in God - indeed the bible reports that the people had quarrelled and had tried God by asking "is the Eternal amongst us or not?". The battle against the Amalakites was, surprisingly, absolutely evenly matched - until Moses raised his hands and kept them held up until the sunset, so allowing Joshua to weaken the Amalakites sufficiently to force them to back off from the attack. That a group of travelling ex slaves could hold off a marauding band with the advantage of surprise, is unexpected to say the least. Clearly something else is at work here. And what is this story of Moses' visibly raised arms about? - so important a detail that it is made almost the centrepiece of the event - we are watching Moses with this arms supported in an upward position and have no image of Joshua leading his people against the marauders. Was Moses pointing to God so as to remind the children of Israel that they were not in fact alone? Was he mysteriously focusing some sort of supernatural power? Hands and arms are a repeated theme in Exodus - God smites the Egyptians with an outstretched arm both in their own country and at the Sea. The Israelites are described as leaving Egypt 'b'yad ramah' - with arms held high (usually understood as boldly). Moses commands the sea to split by lifting his arm and rod over it. The upraised arm representing the power of God and Israel's faith in God appears throughout the narrative. We can trace the images yet still know nothing about their meaning. What is it we are supposed to have understood from the story of Amalek fighting with Israel? Does the context of a lack of faith give us the key or is it simply one more thread in the narrative? What is so important that it required from Moses an altar as memorial and witness to what happened? Why the need to write down the reminder- the first instruction ever to do so, to be followed by the writing on the tablets of stone at Sinai? Where was the document kept?

Why is God at war with Amalek throughout the generations?
What does Amalek represent?

Moses reminds us in Deuteronomy about the episode with Amalek, and tells us that the weak and vulnerable stragglers at the rear of the travelling group of Israelites were attacked. But Moses adds a phrase, one which seems to resonate with the context of the first telling of the story: "v'lo yarei elohim - and did not fear God". To whom does this phrase refer? It could be to the Amalakites - yet one could reasonably ask why they would have been expected to have awe of God ; or it could be to directed towards the children of Israel, in which case Amalek could be a metaphor for precisely this lack of faith, a characteristic that disrupts the journey back to the land of Israel and which remains a stumbling block for people to this day. The Amalakites do not seem to exist outside of biblical text. And even within the text Amalek seems to have become a symbol, a metaphor for alienation. Be it the cruelty that the midrashic tradition embellishes, the arrogance which finds its expression in the story of Haman, the descendant of Amalek, or the lack of care for the vulnerable - Amalek will describe it.

Our tradition paints a picture of Amalek as one who will hurt for the sheer pleasure of hurting, who will destroy aimlessly, who derives no benefit from the destruction or mutilation of the other but will do so anyway. The word describes the one who is the antithesis of 'godly' in that they see no humanity in the other, recognise no common bond between people, care not one whit for the feelings or emotions of the stranger. The Amalakite is estranged from relationship, alienated from a sense of shared ancestry, views others as commodities or objects. It is a state of being we can all slide into on occasion - we too can be Amalek. And usually we do it when we no longer have a sense of that which connects us all - that which I may call God but others may have a different word. And it is when we forget God that we feel able to ignore the weak or the vulnerable, we feel able to ride roughshod over other people and their needs, we arrogantly assume that only our view of the world matters. Moses makes a strange declaration at the end of the battle. He builds a memorial altar and calls it 'God is my standard' - describing God as his benchmark, his paradigm, his flag. And then he says "Ki yad al kess Yah' - understood by tradition to mean 'for a hand upon the throne of God' - yet kess could come from a root meaning a covering, and it could come from a root meaning to divide or to compute. What if this is not some quotation from a lost book of war poetry as some commentators assume, but is instead a promise - it is in the hand of people to work knowing that God covers all humankind perhaps, o even "it is in the power of people to divide God's world - or not." That hand seems to be calling out, held up high and waving to us over the words of the narrative. The hand implies not only divine power but human ability and action. The Amalek who is with us in every generation may not only be the oppressor who comes to destroy the Jewish people, it may be the inner workings of each human soul. The tendency to forget the humanity of others in pursuit of gratification of our own needs, the way we might justify our own bad behaviour rather than face acknowledging what pain we cause. Today is shabbat Zachor. Named after the extra torah reading about Amalek, with its imperative to remember Amalek so as to blot out Amalek, it signifies that in the coming week we will commemorate the story of Esther and read the Megillah for Purim. But as we cheer and boo, as we celebrate the gory end of those who tried to murder us, as we relieve ourselves of some of the stress of a minority existence amongst people who resist our particular difference, lets spare a thought for the Amalek inside all of us, the characteristics of selfishness or conceit, of narrow mindedness or wilful ignorance of other's pain. Our world contains violence and famine, slavery, hatred, huge discrepancy between rich and poor, warfare and oppression. If that isn't the presence of Amalek, I don't know what is.

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