Galilee Diary: Remembering Amalek

March 3, 2009Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

(Originally published in Galilee Diary and Ten Minutes of Torah)

Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.  Do not forget.
            -Deuteronomy 25:19

There were criminals in Rabbi Meir's neighborhood that so bothered him that he prayed for their death. Beruriah, his wife, said to him: "What's with you? Psalm 104:35 says, 'May sins disappear' - does it say 'may sinners disappear?' No, it says 'sins,' so you need to pray for them to repent; the Psalm continues 'and may the wicked be no more.'  So he prayed for them and they repented.
            -Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 10a

Haman, according to the Scroll of Esther, was a member of the tribe of Amalek. Thus, we learn the consequences of disregarding the Torah commandment to wipe out the memory of Amalek - as long as they are allowed to continue to exist, they remain a threat, the enemy who for no rational reason constantly plots our destruction. And we read the above passage on the Shabbat before Purim every year, to keep the lesson alive. The basis of this image of the Amalekites is found in the previous verse: we are told that right after we left Egypt, they attacked us cruelly and without provocation. The story of Amalek - and of Purim - posits a view of history in which there are forces of evil that can only be combated by means of violence, by destroying them physically. Their evil is inherent and immutable, and so, like some kind of virulent microbe in a horror movie, as long as even a few cells are left alive, there is the potential that they will regenerate into a monster. We may believe, in principle, that all humans are created in the Divine image, but apparently there are some who have so lost touch with that image that they are unredeemable.

One can certainly see the evidence for this view in the events of our history - from Amalek to Haman to Chmelnitzki to Hitler - we keep encountering enemies who seem to be beyond education and negotiation, whose hatred for us transcends their own self-interest and seems driven by forces beyond understanding. In this context, Beruriah's feminine wisdom seems naïve - what, we should have offered the Nazis diversity-training seminars? We should negotiate with terrorists? We should reason with the devil? Our history is full of sad stories of tragically humane and optimistic individuals and communities who believed that everything could be worked out, that we only had to appeal to our oppressors' enlightened self-interest, or to wait for their conscience to shine through; for we know that people can change, that the gates of repentance stand eternally open for everyone. More than once, we and our optimistic view of human nature and God's mercy went up in smoke together.

So there is something tempting about seeing Amalek in every enemy. That's the way they are - that's their inborn character. Trying to educate them is hopeless; the only solution is to blot out their memory. Let the evildoers die - then wickedness will be no more. There are a few problems with this approach, it seems to me. First, it is a bit of a slippery slope - once you start down the path of destroying those who you see as evil, you can end up doing a lot of damage that in retrospect may well turn out to be unwarranted. Second, we have been on the receiving end of the pestilential image of the Other, so we may need to be careful about the temptation to identify the Other as inhuman. Third, are we indeed prepared make the statement about human nature that people cannot change? And fourth, this mythical view of human evil absolves us of any responsibility for the bad things that happen to us - evil persons and groups are out there in the world, lurking, and we, their victims, can only repair the world by deleting them.  Rabbi Meir wanted to take the easy way - hit them hard enough and they'll leave you alone.  Beruriah's path is a longer and more difficult and uncertain one - fraught with frustration and danger; but I wonder if there is any other way to redemption.

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