Parashat Tetzaveh / Shabat Zachor 5778 – Remember…to Forget

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Parshah Tetzaveh covers in detail the priestly garments to be worn by the kohanim while serving the sanctuary. It also includes God’s detailed instructions for the seven-day initiation of Aaron and his four sons as kohanim. Tetzaveh is the only parshah in the Torah since Moses’ birth in which Moses’name does not appear. The reason for this is that when the people of Israel sinned with the golden calf, Moses said to God:” If you do not forgive them, erase me from the book that you have written.” The effect of those words was that somewhere in the Torah his name would be erased. While Moses’name does not appear in the today’s parshah, Moses is still very much present: in fact, the entire parshah consists God’s words to Moses. The first word of the pashah is ve’attah, meaning” and you” – the you being Moses. Why does this occur in Tetzaveh? It is because 7th of Adar is felt to be Moses’ birthday and the date of his death and always falls in proximity to the week in which this parshah is read.

Perhaps more importantly, this parsha this also read on Shabbat Zachor and is supplemented with the Zachor reading from Deuteronomy in which we are commanded to remember the evil of Amalek and to eradicate it from the face of the earth. The sages have prescribed the public reading of this passage on the Shabbat which precedes Purim so that the wiping out of Amalek might be connected to the wiping out of Haman who was a descendent of Amalek.

”Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt.
That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging in in your rear, when you were tired and exhausted. He did not fear God. And it shall come to pass, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, then you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.”

Amalek was an ancient Middle Eastern nation that had an inborn hatred towards Israel. It was an intrinsic pathologic need to destroy God’s people. Such hatred cannot be combatted through diplomacy. Their hatred was not taught – it was ingrained. As long as an Amalekite walked the earth, no Jew was safe. It was a clear case of kill or be killed. Blotting out the memory of Amalek was no mere psychologic activity. The Israelites were expected to kill every Amalekite man, woman and child. But was this just a theoretical imperative or was it meant to be carried out?

It was approximately 400 years later that the Lord gave the order to destroy Amalek through the prophet Samuel. It occurred during the reign of King Saul.
It was time to bring the retribution of the Lord upon the Amalekites.
However, King Saul failed to execute God’s command as he was orderd He saved King Agag and some of the best animals..
ordered. He spared King Agag and some of the animals. God and Samuel harshly criticized Saul for not following God’s orders.

Amalek embodies the principle of the lack of fear of God, and therefore, represents the power of darkness and incorrigible evil in the world.

The Torah gives us three Commandments in regards to Amalek. First, we must wage war against the seed of Amalek – we must do everything in our power to destroy them. Second, we must not forget what Amalek has done to us. And third, we are commanded to remember.
It would appear that the second and third are virtually the same.Why would the Torah command us both to remember and not to forget?
The Torah is telling us that, on the one hand, we must never forget the suffering that we endured, never forget what Amalek has done – and can do – to us.

This is important, so that we never lessen our efforts to do everything in our power to fight them. But that alone is not enough. We must also remember – actively focus our minds on the source of our power to defeat Amalek. We must remember that we survived. We must remember that we were not destroyed. We must remember that we lived and continued to flourish.

There seems to be a paradox here since how can the memory be blotted out when we are asked to recall it every year? Remember… To forget! If God wanted the Amalekites to be forgotten, then why mention their name? Think about it: If we fulfill this commandment do we not fail to fulfill it?

This reading for Shabbat Zachor is very troubling for many Jews. Many find this commandment troubling because, in order for us to” blot out the remembrance of Amalek,” it appears to advocate genocide. Shabbat Zachor’s corresponding haftorah, as mentioned, in the book of Samuel is even more explicit on this point, ordering Saul to kill the men, women, children and cattle of Amalek.

The moral argument against genocide is certainly compelling, especially for a nation who heard the commandment” thou shall not murder” from the mouth of God at Sinai. There may, however, be a more direct approach to this paradox. Killing Amalek may ultimately have little to do with race. Rav Chaim has explained that Amalek is a conceptual category, not merely a historical reality. One who behaves as an Amalekite can achieve the status of Amalek. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik applied this teaching to the Nazis who adopted an Amalakian worldview, unfortunately with more success than the historical Amalekites.

In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides explains further that the command to wipe out Amalek isn’t based on hatred, but on removing Amalek like behavior from the world. For Maimonides, then, the commandment is not necessarily fulfilled through killing; it can be fulfilled through moral influence and education. The sages have long understood the commandment is a command to blot out the type of people that Amalek represents: those that prey upon the weak, those who do not believe in justice, those who hate without reason. It is these evil people that we are commanded to destroy, not any specific ethnic group. The sages say if an Amalekite were to accept the basic principles of morality, he would cease to be an Amalekite and would not be someone whose memory we are commanded to blot out.

Throughout history, there have been those who have sought to destroy humanity. There have been those who have killed for the sake of killing, whose goal has been to eradicate freedom, peace and harmony. These enemies may span the religious spectrum. They may span the cultural and geographical racial spectrum. But ultimately they are one and the same. They are terrorists. When a terrorist attack strikes our country, our community, our home, fear sets in. Why? What is the source of this unique fear that terrorists have put in our hearts? Terrorists have managed to erode our sense of security, our hope, and our faith.
Althoughthe negative force of terror has been with us since the dawn of human history, the names and faces and national identities of terrorists change from place to place and from era to era, but the primordial force that drives them has a single name. It is Amalek. The Torah teaches us that God is at war with Amalek for all generations. Our sages say:” in every generation, Amalek rises to destroy us, and each time he clothes himself in a different nation.

Some might argue that Iran might be the modern-day equivalent of Amalek. Its leaders have unleashed a storm of anti-Semitic, genocidal rhetoric threatening Israel’s eradication. The Iranian regime denies that millions of Jews were slaughtered during the Holocaust, and spews vicious and hateful vitriol against Israel.

Sara Esther Crispe notes that Amalek’s danger is not their ability to kill. Actually, cars kill more people every year. Amalek doesn’t just kill – Amalek makes us doubt. Cars do not seek to destroy us. Amalek plans and plots and aims to hurt us, to maim us and to murder us. And every time they do, they make us doubt more. They make us doubt if we are safe, if we are secure, if we are taking care of. We continue but with a little less courage, a little less security, a little less faith.
They try to paralyze us and make us think twice before continuing on with our daily lives. They make us doubt the very reality of ourselves, our lives, our God.

The elimination of Amalek remains a command. It is no longer directed at a particular tribe, but rather against incorrigible evil in general.

The primary lesson of parshah Zachor is that true reconciliation comes through repentance and remembrance. Repentance is the key to overcoming the evils of the past. Remembrance is the key to preventing recurrence. Naïve people claimed that Amalek is long since gone. Only primitive people are so cruel, only madmen would do such terrible things. The commandment of Zachor is a stern reminder that Amalek lives and must be fought.

The general consensus among today’s Jewish communities seems to be that our energies can and must be used to stop the perpetuation of genocidal activity occurring throughout the world, to become agents for peace, and to dismiss any contemporary comparisons to the biblical paradigm. But clearly there are difficult texts and teachings that remain in our tradition that must be remembered and reckoned with.

We cannot change what has happened. But we can help change what will happen. Amalek is what brings doubt to our minds. When we lose our faith, we lose everything. It is then that Amalek is able to attack us. Yet we have something infinitely more powerful than doubt: the power of memory. So we must remember. We must remember that no matter how hard it was, Amalek did not win. They did not succeed. We survived. Fearing Amalek will not help. Running away from Amalek will not help. Rather, we must not forget that they are our enemy. We must face them and deal with them. We have the ability and power to do so. We must Zachor, remember.