Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how…he surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore…you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! Deut. 25:17-19
I have always found the somewhat convoluted language of this passage at the end of this week’s Torah portion a bit amusing: remember to forget Amalek!
Who is Amalek?
In Exodus 17, Amalek is a tribe of nomads in the Sinai desert, who attacked the Israelites, who have just been freed from four hundred years of slavery. According to the tradition, the Amalekites did not confront the Israelites directly, which would have allowed young men of military age to defend the rest of the people; instead, they preyed upon the weak, the infirm and the aged who, because of their conditions, lagged behind the main body of the Israelites. This went on until Moses instructed Joshua to gather a force of men to go after the Amalekites and defeat them.
Because of the cowardly actions of the Amalekites, who were “undeterred by fear of God,” the name of this tribe was to be blotted out of history as not worthy of being remembered – a terrible fate to the biblical mind, to be forgotten forever.
Of course, the name of Amalek was not blotted out of history, as witness its presence in our Bible!
But this idea of blotting out the name of Amalek has an echo in our customs in, of all places, the Jewish festival of Purim!
Purim is the story of Esther, the Jewish young woman who hides her identity when she is chosen out of all the beautiful women of Persia to be the queen. When a new prime minister, by the name of Haman, is appointed, he manipulates the King into allowing him to kill all the Jews. In order to save her people, Esther reveals her Jewish identity to the King, telling him that Haman is threatening her, too, when he threatens the Jews.
So what does this have to do with Amalek, you ask?
Well, in the Scroll of Esther (3:1), Haman is described as an Agagite, a descendant of one Agag. Agag was the king of Amalek when King Saul was commanded to wipe out the Amalekites for what they did to the Israelites on their way out of Egypt centuries before (1 Sam. 15). Saul leaves King Agag alive, but is then confronted by the Prophet Samuel for not obeying God and wiping out all the Amalekites. Samuel kills Agag with Saul’s sword; but the damage seems to have been done: Agag leaves descendants, one of whom will be Haman the Agagite of the Book of Esther.
This is the origin of the custom of booing loudly when Haman’s name is mentioned during the reading of the Scroll of Esther, on Purim, in order to drown out his name. We thus fulfill the commandment in this week’s Torah portion to wipe out the name of Amalek from history.
Moral of story: because Saul didn’t fulfill God’s command to wipe out the Amalekites, the Jewish People faced possible annihilation almost a thousand years later.
The lesson for us: we can’t know what the ultimate impact of even our least actions will be in the future. We are therefore called on to live by God’s teachings, so that – at least hopefully – there is a better chance of a good result.
So – don’t forget to remember to forget!