Parashat Zachor and the Commandment to Destroy Amalek
Parashat Zachor, which is read on the Saturday before Purim, probably brings most of the modern audience into a certain discomfort. In this Parasha (Deuteronomy 25, verses 17-19), the people of Israel are commanded to remember and not to forget what Amalek did to them when they went out of Egypt, and after settling down in the promised land the people of Israel are commanded to destroy the memory of Amalek. This commandment has a special status in the Jewish tradition. The commandment itself has three parts – to remember, not to forget and destroy. Moreover, the commandment is read on a special Shabbat, there is an obligation to listen to it, and it has to be read from a scroll of Torah. However, the reading of the text, that to many of us reminds actual genocide, may cause real puzzle over the importance of the commandment and the necessity of reading it each and every year in a special ritual.
Due to the fact that I have always felt uncomfortable with the Parasha, a few years ago I decided to look closer into the essence of the commandment to destroy Amalek. What I have discovered was that the commandment of destroying Amalek, as understood in its ordinary way, is not a practical commandment. First, today there are no actual people that could be identified as “Amalek” and therefore this commandment could not be fulfilled in practice.
Second, the Rambam (Maimonides) in his book Mishne Torah (Hilchot Melachim, Chapter 11), writes that Israel may not go to war against a nation that keeps the seven Laws of Noah and accepts the peace offer from it. It is also clear from the Rambam that the people of Amalek are included in these provisions. Since the Laws of Noah are very essential to the existence of a society (commandments such as the prohibition of murder and having a system of courts), even if the Amalek people did exist as a society, they would probably follow these commandments.
Therefore, we see that this commandment on its surface is almost impossible to follow. So what do we make of it? How do we explain the fact that a commandment that consists of three parts and has a special Shabbat that it is read at probably is irrelevant at all?
My suggestion is to read the text of the Parasha more closely. The exact words of text are as follows:
“17. Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt; 18. how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. 19. Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.”
From reading the text we can see that the Torah condemned the deed of Amalek so much because it attacked the people of Israel as they only left Egypt, and were (as modern scholars would probably call them) refugees. Moreover, Amalek chose to attack the people of Israel from the back – where the weakest members of society went. Therefore, I would suggest that the relevance of this Parasha to our days is that we, as society and as individuals, have to take care of the weakest members of society – the elder, the children and the refugees. A society that does not protect its weaker members is a society that, according to this reading, does not deserve to exist as a society. The importance of social justice is so big, that we are reminded of it, among others, by this very special Shabbat every year.
Was given in memory of my grandmother, Vera Naumenko z”l.