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Amalek and Memory in Pittsburgh: Evil Must Not Define Us

(This teaching on Parashat Ki Teitzei was given by Seth Rosen, chair of our board of governors, at Congregation Dor Hadash, Pittsburgh, Pa., on Sept. 14, 2019 — eleven months after the synagogue attack.)

Shabbat shalom!

I want to begin by telling you what a privilege it is to stand in front of this community, and how grateful my wife Joan and I are for your invitation to be a part of this congregation, even if only for one Shabbat weekend.

As we just read, Ki Teitzei is pretty much just a list of laws; it includes 74 of the 613 mitzvot, more than any other parashah. Of those 74, 73 of them, all but the last, deal in a pretty wide-ranging way with rules applicable to interpersonal relationships and personal behavior — rules of commerce, rules of marriage and divorce; frankly, it’s kind of all over the place. I do not want to focus my time this morning on the first 73 laws. I would like to focus on the very end of Ki Teitzei — Deuteronomy chapter 25, verses 17-19 — and actually on just the last five or so words of those verses, in which we are told that we must never forget to remember to forget Amalek. Reading from the Everett Fox translation:

Bear-in-mind what Amalek did to you on the way, at your going out from Egypt, how he encountered you on the way and attacked your tail — all the beaten down ones in your rear — while you were weary and faint, and (thus) he did not stand in awe of God. So it shall be: When Adonai your God gives you rest from your enemies in the land Adonai your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you possess and settle in it, you are to blot out the name of Amalek from under the heavens. You are not to forget.

What does that mean … we should never forget to remember to blot out the memory of Amalek? How do you do that? How can we not forget to remember to forget?

First of all, who is Amalek? We have to remember before we can forget.

As today’s portion reminds us, we have encountered Amalek in the Torah before: in Parashat Beshalakh, Exodus, chapter 17. There, we are told that within days of crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites were attacked by Amalek. Moses sends Joshua to raise an army and to battle against Amalek. As long as Moses holds up his arms, the Israelites prevail in battle; when he lets his arms down, the Amalekites take the advantage. In the end, Aaron and Hur help Moses to hold up his arms, and Amalek is defeated. On its face, it’s not much of a story. Certainly, it’s not the worst thing that happens to the Israelites; yet we are not told to blot out the name of Pharaoh, who killed the firstborn. Nonetheless, at the end of Beshalakh, God tells Moses: “I will blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.” And Moses says: “Adonai will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”

What’s that all about? Today’s retelling of the story adds a new gloss not mentioned in Exodus: that Amalek did not attack the Israelites head on, but attacked the weak and the sick, the stragglers at the rear of the columns escaping from Egypt through the wilderness. One interpretation is that by attacking the weak and the sick, the Amalekites displayed a basic lack of human decency, and therefore, were an affront to the very concept of godliness embodied not only in the Torah, but in the basic laws of decency applicable to all people. Another midrash teaches that the real sin of Amalek was that he robbed the Israelites of their idealism, and taught them that, despite the promise of God’s protection, the world could be a dangerous place.

We encounter the Amalekites again in the first book of Samuel. Saul is sent by the prophet Samuel to do battle with Amalek and instructed, in effect, to commit genocide — to quite literally (much too literally) fulfill the law that we read today: that Amalek’s name be blotted out from the earth. Saul is instructed: “Have no pity on him; kill man and woman alike, infant and suckling alike, ox and sheep alike, camel and donkey alike.” Although Saul is victorious, he does not complete the genocide. He allows, among others, Agag, the king of the Amalekites, to live, and keeps the best of the livestock. Because he does not complete the genocide, Saul loses his kingdom. In the rabbinic tradition, Saul’s failure to destroy the Amalekites completely has consequences in history: Haman, who is described in the book of Esther as “Haman the Agagite,” is seen by the tradition as a direct descendant of the King Agag, whose life was spared by Saul, and another descendant of Amalek. In this tradition, when we swing our groggers on Purim to drown out the name of Haman, we were fulfilling the mitzvah of “blotting out the name of Amalek.”

All pretty literal for me.

A Chassidic scholar of the late 18th and early 19th centuries1 focuses us on the first phrase of the section I read earlier—“remember that which Amalek did to you”—and reads it to mean “remember that you can become Amalek.” Remember, he is saying, confrontations with evil can bring out the evil in ourselves: the impulse to be ruled by our anger; the urge to attack first; or the desire for revenge.

Rabbi Sampson Rachael Hirsch, in around 1860, expanded on that thought. He wrote: “Do not forget this thing when the day comes and your yourself suffer Amalek’s violence and coarseness. Keep standing straight. Preserve the humanity and values of justice that you learned from your God. The future belongs to them [meaning those values], and in the end, humanity and justice will overcome coarseness and violence. You yourself were sent in order to bring near — with your very example — that overcoming and that future.” In that tradition, Amalek is the inclination to evil that we each harbor somewhere deep inside, and that can be provoked when we are forced to confront the evil in others. Remembering to forget Amalek is the act of overcoming that inclination towards evil — the impulse to act in a manner that is not consistent with our sacred values.

This recurrence of Amalek in story after story inspires another, less literal, tradition: the view that Amalek is not the particular enemy identified in Exodus and his direct descendants, but the inclination to evil itself—the embodiments of evil that become manifest throughout history. In her book, Studies in Devarim, the scholar Nehama Leibowitz sums up this approach, which has roots in the rabbinic tradition that go back centuries. She writes: “Amalek is the archetype of the Godless, who attack the weak because they are weak, who cut down the stragglers in every generation.”

In this reading, we see Amaleks rise and fall throughout history. Amalek is, in effect, everyone who attacked and persecuted the Jewish people throughout the centuries—the ones who drove us into exile; the perpetrators of the inquisition and the pogroms; the Nazis; and, yes, the face of modern terrorism. But we have to remember that we Jews do not have a monopoly on Amaleks; in just the last century, the Armenians, the European Roma, the Cambodians, the Bosnian Muslims, the Rohingya people and god knows how many others have been set upon by their own Amaleks. When I read about the vulnerable Israelites being attacked as they are marching through the desert, I find it hard not to picture the non-violent marchers in Selma being attacked with clubs and dogs and fire hoses.

So, what can it mean to be told that we should remember to forget — to blot out the names — of those persecutors?

This vision of Amalek as representing an ever-changing embodiment of evil over the millennia leads me to what is to me a haunting, but perhaps, ultimately, the most fulfilling, reading of today’s parashah.

Deuteronomy takes the form of Moses’ valedictory speech to the Israelites right before he dies. Picture Moses, the prophet, standing before the assembled Israelites for the last time. Imagine that, as a prophet, what he saw in front of him was not just the people of his time, but that as he looked out, what he saw laid out in front of him was all of the history of the Jewish people and all of the Jews of every generation, including the victims of scores of Amaleks from across the millennia. But if he was a true prophet, he didn’t just see the tragedies that would beset the Jewish people over time, but also saw the depth and beauty of everything that Jews and Judaism would bring into the world in the millennia to follow: the psalms and the Talmud; rich traditions of prayer, song and literature; the beauty of Shabbat; the traditions of the Kabbalists and the Chassidim; the theory of relativity; and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There’s Moses, both burdened and buoyed by his vision of our future, laying out the terms of the covenant for all of history — exhorting each of us, across time, to a live holy life and build a culture grounded in our shared covenantal obligation to bring godliness into the world.

But he knows what’s coming. He looks at this assembly and he thinks to himself, “You don’t know this, but here are going to be a lot of Amaleks. Life is always going to be hard.” And he knows, and the Torah implicitly acknowledges, that human nature being what it is, we will never forget the Amaleks of history or of the present. Who can forget those evils? And they keep coming back. Frankly, the Torah makes no real pretense that the name and memory of Amalek will really be blotted out from the world. It’s right in the Torah. We will read Amalek’s name and remember what he has done twice a year, when we read Beshalakh and Ki Teitzei. That’s not getting blotted out. We read it again when the verses I am discussing right now are read as the maftir on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim. We’re not going to blot out the memory of all the Amaleks. The memory is too sharp. The reality of evil is much too vivid. We’re going to remember.

So why does Moses tell us that we should also remember to forget?

Maybe the Torah is telling us that, at least from time to time, we have to force ourselves to forget the Amaleks. Moses the prophet saw the full richness of our history and the danger that even the memory of that richness could be lost to a succession of Amaleks. Our history cannot just be the stories of the Amaleks who have attacked and tried to destroy is. That can’t be our story. Our story is the clarity of our enduring values — the beauty and the depth of what we have brought into the world. Amalek is not a figment of our imaginations; the world has seen and will continue to see too many Amaleks. But we cannot and should not let Amalek take away the power to define who we are. Rather, we must make the conscious choice — we must remember, at least from time to time, to forget — so that we take control of the narrative, and build our identity and our history out of that which sustains us. It is true for us, as it is for the Armenians, the Roma, the Cambodians, the Rohingya and every other group of people who have encountered Amalek. The story of each civilization, of each nation, of each community must be defined by its members—not by those who seek to harm or destroy it — and it must be filled with the lives that were lived and the values those lives embodied, and not just the memory of victimhood. We’ll remember Amalek; we couldn’t forget him if we tried. But once in a while, at least, we should remember to forget the Amaleks and find identity in our culture, our values and our tradition as they abide and evolve through the ages. Maybe that’s what Moses wanted us to do.

Look, I understand the implications of what I am saying, standing in front of this congregation. I wouldn’t presume to stand in front of the members of this community, of all people, and claim some great wisdom about how to confront evil. But I do want to point to the example you have set for the rest of us in the Reconstructionist movement and beyond. In particular, I can think of no better examples of adhering to our values, and of not letting evil define us, than the letters sent from this community in support of a plea bargain that would preclude the death penalty for the perpetrator of the attack on Oct. 27, 2018, and your advocacy for effective gun laws. I quote from your statement: “We continue to reject hatred and all systems of oppression, and follow the tenets of our faith, which teaches us that only through our shared humanity can there be an end to hatred and violence.”

In the end, I think that is what it means to remember to forget Amalek. I understand that you never wanted to be our example — that you would have given anything not to be that example. But you have taught us and forced us to wonder whether we would have your strength on the day on which, God forbid, we might be in your shoes. I’m going to ask you to do more. I know it isn’t fair. Reach out to Reconstructionist communities across North America and ask us — give us the opportunity — to stand with you in support of our shared values and to join you in your advocacy. I promise you, thousands of Reconstructionists are eager to support you and stand with you.

As I said when I began, it is a privilege to stand in front of this community, and Joan and I are so grateful for your invitation to be a part of this sacred congregation. We very much hope that our new relationship will continue.

  • 1. The Ma’or va Shemesh (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein)

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