Sermon – Shabbat Zachor: Asking what we did to Amalek

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 23 February 2021

With Purim approaching next week, we have a stark reminder that we have been living apart for nearly an entire Jewish calendrical year. For many of us Purim was the last time we entered this building. By Pesach we were firmly in our first lockdown.


We are not the only people who have lost a year of celebrations. Just last week, the lunar new year rolled around with no fanfare. There were no dragons dancing in the streets, no lanterns floating between the lampposts. The roads of Chinatown were eerily quiet as many of the restaurants now stand permanently closed.


Instead of the usual festivities, Chinese people around the world celebrated from home, almost exactly a year after the first coronavirus case was recorded in the UK. For many, their homes felt like the only place of safety for them, after reports of anti-Asian violence have risen greatly during the past twelve months.


As Boris Johnson took to social media with a video celebrating the lunar new year, the public responded with comments including:

‘Thank you China. We don’t know where we’d be without you – probably with friends and family.’


The comments on this video, one of which inferred that celebrating the Chinese New Year was the equivalent of marking Hitler’s birthday, reminds us that for the Asian population and London’s Chinatown, recovery from this pandemic is not just needed from the economic impacts of coronavirus, but also from the racial prejudices that have spread like wildfire.

During the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a reported rise in stigma, hate speech and hate crimes, xenophobia and racism against vulnerable communities including religious and faith communities. With people in lockdown spending more time than ever online, misinformation and false information have risen at an alarming rate.  Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on how we speak to and about others.


We are provided with an annual opportunity to evaluate our relationship with the other just before Purim. On Shabbat Zachor we are instructed, ‘Zachor et asher asah l’cha Amalek,’ – Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey. This passage of Torah from Deuteronomy reminds us of Amalek attacking the Israelites from the rear, targeting the women, the elderly and the children.


Amalek sought to destroy the Israelites in the most savage way possible. Rather than giving the army the chance to defend themselves in fair battle, he assaulted those most vulnerable.  We read this passage just before Purim because in Megillat Esther, which we will read together on Thursday evening, we learn that Haman is a descendent of King Agag, who is descended from Amalek. As Haman too tries to annihilate the Jews, we see history repeating itself.


Shabbat Zachor urges us to confront the mistakes of our past, for it is only through remembering mistakes that we can stop them from reoccuring. By recognising the injustice we faced both at the hands of Amalek and again at the hands of Haman we can correct the conditions that lead to it, and ultimately stop the groundless hatred from rearing its ugly head again.


So, on this Shabbat Zachor, we should not only remember what Amalek did to us, but also what we did to Amalek. We should use this Shabbat to think about any role we play in fostering hatred in our world.


Every year when we read about the case of Amalek we look at ourselves as the victim, assuming that we are completely innocent and helpless against the force that wrought our destruction. However, the rabbis of the Talmud suggest that this might not be so.


In tractate Sanhedrin we learn the story of Amalek’s mother, Timna. Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz. Her brothers were chiefs, meaning she too would be classed as royalty.


Talmud grapples with why a member of royalty would become a lowly concubine to Eliphaz. The rabbis tell a story of Timna seeking to convert. She came before Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but they would not accept her as a convert. So, she became a concubine of Eliphaz, the son of Esau, saying ‘It is better to be a maidservant to this nation than to be a princess to another nation!’


In this narrative, Timna is seen as a figurehead of good intentions. Rashi comments that Timna thought it better to marry into the family of the Patriarchs, a God-fearing people, than to retain her royal status in another nation. Therefore, she accepted the lowly rank of concubine to Eliphaz since he was Isaacs grandson.


Our patriarchs failed to see the good in her and were consequently punished. The rabbis conclude, For what reason did Amalek descend from Timna? Because the patriarchs should not have rejected her.


I am not trying to profess that Amalek was innocent, purely a victim of his circumstance. But our rabbis could have fashioned any backstory for Timna, who is only a fleeting guest in our narrative. By assigning this background to her the rabbis encourage us to think about our role in the story of Amalek. Perhaps they are suggesting that had his mother been treated better and welcomed with open arms, then Amalek would have not grown so bitter and full of hatred.


By remembering the story of Timna on this Shabbat Zachor, we begin to reflect on what happens when we too act with hatred and a lack of understanding. In the case of Timna we learn that hateful acts breed hate.


On Tuesday night of the past week, we heard from members of the Markaz el Tathgheef el Eslami as well as their lawyers, and some of those who are exploring what is happening behind the scenes. The evening was designed so that Alyth members and friends from across the faith communities of Golders Green can learn more about what our neighbours are facing.


As Rabbi Josh said both last Shabbat and on Tuesday, we are not a generally a synagogue that campaigns, recognising that among us are diverse opinions and needs. But when something like this is happening in our neighbourhood, we have an obligation to educate ourselves, and if we wish, to act.



In talmud it teaches:

Some of Haman’s descendants studied Torah in Bnei Brak, and some of Sisera’s descendants taught children Torah in Jerusalem, and some of Sennacherib’s descendants taught Torah in public. Who are they? They are Shemaya and Avtalyon, the teachers of Hillel the Elder.


This passage teaches us that through every interfaith relationship we have the potential of meeting teachers and friends. When we treat the other with respect and equality, we can meet in understanding. When we are open, and come together in support during difficult times, we are able to create sustainable, shared solutions to issues that matter most to us.


It is inevitable that groundless hate will still exist, that people will wish bad things on others because of their race, religion or nationality. However, we can minimise this hate by learning from others, by welcoming them with open arms and judging them fairly. Then instead of creating more figures like Amalek in our narrative, we will build more bridges of understanding.


On this Shabbat Zachor, may we remember not only what Amalek did to us, but also what we did to Amalek. May we learn from it and grow from it. And may we help to create a dynamic of openness and understanding in our own community, in the wider community and in the world.