Dvar Torah: Zohar (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

Zachor et asher asah l’cha Amalek.  Remember what Amalek did to you. Zachor et ha-yom ha-zehasher yatzatem mi-Mitzrayim.  Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt.  Zachor et yom ha-Shabbat l’kadsho. Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy.  Zachor. Remember.  The rootzachar appears no less than two hundred and twenty two times in Tanach and so it’s no wonder that Jews have good memories.  However in the grammatical form zachor, it is not just a good idea, but an actual order.

Some examples of zachor in the Torah clearly seem more important than others; some are one-offs, relating only to a point in our history, while others like Shabbat and Pesach continue with us as an ongoing part of Jewish life. But only one, that of Amalek, is a combination of these.  So much so, that we name a Shabbat after it, Shabbat Zachor.  Let’s remind ourselves of the story.  The ancient Israelites have left the wilderness of Tzin and the Amalekites attack them from the rear.  This is against all the codes of desert warfare, that the stragglers, the weary, the sick, the women and the children should be attacked in such a way.  Therefore God commands that the memory of Amalek shall be blotted out from under heaven.

Tradition has it that one of the descendants of Amalek was Haman, and so it is that each year on the Shabbat before Purim we read this section from the Torah.  But how does reading it each year blot out the memory?  Surely it’s keeping the memory alive!  If we look behind the biblical story, we find a nomadic tribe forced out of its habitat by the tribes of Edom or Esau, suddenly confronted by the appearance of the Israelites.  Seeing this as a menacing encroachment on their territory and as a threat to their control of the oases and trading routes, the Amalekites savagely attacked the Israelites, enough to create a continuing feud.

While this might, therefore, have been an opportunistic attack against an easy target, the very fact that God has commanded an ongoing remembering and a complete annihilation of the attackers suggests that there was more to it.  The Rabbis of old see in this an attempt by Amalek to utterly destroy the Israelites, the first in a series of such throughout our history.  Another example of such an attempt was Haman and the whole story of Purim and so it was that the connection between these readings and Purim was instituted by the Rabbis.

The story of Purim is one of hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia.  It recalls the dangers of minority status, the fear of the foreigner or stranger turning into hatred.  It is a story over which scholars have argued for centuries as to whether it actually happened or not, yet that doesn’t really matter.  Its veracity is irrelevant, its importance lies in its place in Judaism as a paradigm, a model.  Whether history or a historic novel, it sets a pattern for much of the oppression and persecution which the Jewish people have suffered over the centuries since.  Yet as the  of Esther demonstrates it is also a story of survival, the eventual triumph over evil.  So may it long be.