November 19, 2018

Torah portion: Remember

Shabbat Zachor — the Sabbath of Remembering — calls on us to remember and reflect on events that are not the most pleasant of memories. It is the annual Shabbat preceding Purim when, in addition to the weekly Torah portion, we take out a second Torah scroll and read three verses that evoke memories from a distant yet not-so-distant past: 

Remember [Zachor] what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt. When they encountered you on the way, and you were tired and exhausted, they cut off those lagging to your rear, and they did not fear God. Therefore, when God gives you peace from all the enemies around you in the land that God your Lord is giving you to occupy as a heritage, you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. You must not forget (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

The name Amalek has become synonymous with anti-Semitism and violent evil. The Amalekites were a nation who launched a surprise attack against the Jewish people shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. This unprovoked attack was deemed by the Torah as an act of pure evil and resulted in an eternal blacklisting of the Amalekites as the archenemies of the Jewish people.

In our distant past, Amalek is directly associated with the Purim story. The Book of Esther relates that Haman was a descendant of Agag, an Amalekite king. Haman the Amalekite was the first tyrant to ever conceive of a plot to annihilate the entire Jewish people: 

There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed in the kingdom, whose laws are different from all others … if it pleases the king, let it be written that they be destroyed (Esther 3:8-9).

Haman’s plot was ultimately foiled, but the lurking evil of Amalek remains permanently ingrained in the Jewish consciousness. 

In our not-so-distant past, the word Amalek evokes haunting memories of Haman’s plot coming to life in Nazi Germany. For Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk, who spent 13 years writing his epic novels “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” about World War II and the Holocaust, the theme of Amalek looms large over his literary masterpieces. Indeed, as the epigram to “War and Remembrance,” Wouk used a quote from the Torah:

Write this for remembrance in a book … that the Lord has a war with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:14-16).

As an author who brought one of history’s darkest periods to life for millions of readers and viewers (the books later became a television miniseries), as a veteran of the United States Navy in World War II, and as an Orthodox Jew who identified with his people’s collective sense of loss and mourning after the Holocaust, Wouk drew a direct link between the Amalek of our distant past and our not-so-distant past. He did not see Amalek as a mystical force that persists in the cosmos, but rather as the persistence of evil within human beings that drives mankind into tirades of violence, bloodshed and genocide. In the reissued editions of his masterpieces in 2001, Wouk wrote these reflective words in his new preface:

In the last global war, before VE day and VJ day came, there befell the collapse of France, the Bataan death march, the fall of Singapore, the siege of Stalingrad, bloody Tarawa, and bloodier Guadalcanal; and at the hidden heart of that global war, concealed by the smoke of battle, there burned the Holocaust. That eternal benchmark of barbarism, let us remember, was set by the Germans, an advanced European nation. The evil in human hearts knows no boundary, except the deeper, stronger will to freedom, order and justice. In the very long run, that will, so far, has prevailed.

Many in the Jewish community view the persistent remembering of Amalek as a form of paranoia. “Why do we insist on constantly remembering Amalek?” they ask. “Can’t we just get over it and move on?”

My answer to their question: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and modern-day Syria. That, along with ISIS’ daily beheadings and rapes, the Charlie Hebdo attack and the Bataclan and related massacres in Paris, the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, and the almost daily stabbings of Israelis on the streets of the Jewish state — to name just a few. The evil of Amalek persists, so … we continue to remember.

Zachor. 

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. Follow his blogs at rabbidanielbouskila.blogspot.com and jewishjournal.com/through_sephardic_lenses.