On Purim, Remembering Amalek Means Remembering the Holocaust and Confronting Hate
by Jeremy Rosen
The Shabbat before Purim is always called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat when we remember. What are we to remember? Exodus Chapter 17:14, and Deuteronomy Chapter 25:19 both refer to the battle against Amalek that took place when the Children of Israel came out of Egypt. They intentionally took a detour to avoid running into Amalek on the way out toward Canaan.
In Exodus, after Joshua retaliated and defeated Amalek the text includes these words: “And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek. Then God said to Moses, ‘Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!’ Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-Nissi, God will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”
Deuteronomy embellishes the details. “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 your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
Why does the text say both “remember” and “do not forget”? Aren’t they the same thing? And why is it so important to write it down in a document? The battle with Amalek was an example of a brutal attack for no valid reason, other than to kill or enslave. Amalek is picked out specifically as an example of needless hatred, the forerunner of genocide.
The word Zachor — to remember — is used in several different ways in the Torah: to remember historically what happened at a particular moment in time; to remember the Temple service; to remember one’s religious values; to remember the Shabbat; and to remember God and God’s law. To remember, to give great significance to something, is much more than just a memory. It is an injunction not to forget. As Exodus says, “ You must write it down, document it.”
In the first version of the 10 commandments in Exodus, we are told to zachor the Shabbat. But in the second version in Deuteronomy, that word is replaced with the word shamor — to keep, to practice, not just vaguely remember an idea. The memory in itself is not enough. One has to take action in some way to keep that memory alive.
In today’s times, we are faced with a serious challenge because the response to the Holocaust was “never again.” As with Amalek, we know we must remember it. But the sad fact is that the world has all but forgotten about the Holocaust, even though the UN and so many countries have a Holocaust Memorial Day and Holocaust memorials or museums that do their best to educate. Yet most school children have never heard of it or know of its significance. And however much we may mouth “never again,” genocidal barbarity continues as does antisemitism. I can’t think of a better example where there is a dissonance between remembering an idea and its having no impact.
The whole point of law in Judaism is that having daily, weekly, and monthly rituals help to reinforce a sense of identity and a sense of one’s religious values. We are told specifically that we must write it down, too. Here you have the first example of where the Torah emphasizes an oral law combined with a written law as the best way to protect, educate, and survive.
Humanity is constantly caught up in a battle between good and evil. It is human nature. And we all struggle with it daily to some degree. But how do we get the lesson to sink in? Only with a culture of remembrance that does not forget (even if it might forgive).
This is where a religious tradition that connects the past with everyday life in the present plays an important part, even if many often find it all irksome. Haman’s full name, Haman HaAgagi, recalls the Amalekite King Agag as mentioned in the Book of Samuel. The message of Purim is another example of reiterating how evil keeps on repeating itself. The Internet and social media have spread this hatred like never before and, I am sorry to say, led to excessive violence on the part of some Jews too. The only antidote is to keep on reminding ourselves of the challenge and not allow it to go unchecked.
Every year we celebrate Purim — and the fact that we were nearly destroyed — by performing rituals, reading the megillah, having a feast, and celebrating survival with joy, charity, and goodwill. These are better ways of remembering than just having formal memorial days where people pay tribute and talking becomes a substitute for action.
The author is a writer and rabbi, currently based in New York.