Deuteronomy 21:10 –25:19
In Ki Teitze we find one of the most enigmatic of all commandments:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt, how he fell upon you on the way and cut down all the stragglers, with you famished and exhausted, and he did not fear God. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land 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! [Deut. 25:17-19]
At first reading, this commandment seems to defy logic. How could we possibly remember not to forget to completely forget?
Amalek, for us, represents far more than one attack against the Israelite slaves escaping from Egypt – but to understand why we need to remember what actually happened. When we first left Egypt, we were a mob of refugees. We had no organization and no defenses. The people who were physically strongest walked quickly and were well towards the front. The most vulnerable followed as best they could – sometimes far behind. In attacking the stragglers, Amalek demonstrated the worst kind of depravity. It was not enough for them to prey on refugees, they attacked the most helpless from among our people: the very old, the very young and the infirm.
What could possibly motivate such an action? There are many possible answers: callousness, cowardice, opportunism. Our tradition judges Amalek more harshly: only pure evil, only unadulterated hatred could lead to such action. So, we are taught that in every generation Amalek rises again to destroy the Jewish people, and in every generation we must remember to blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. For us, Amalek and each new iteration of anti-Semitism are one and the same.
In Torah and in our generation, ‘never forget,’ is the first step in the fight against anti-Semitism and all racism. However, it is only the beginning of the process. The end goal is to eventually wipe out not only the reality of racism, but even its memory. To do so requires a strong and sustained act of will – over generations.
Amalek is still with us, and in many ways, we are still in the Wilderness. For now, we must never forget, we must remain vigilant, we must stand up through word and deed to repudiate those who spew hate. Yet, we must also remember: that while Amalek is still here, so are we – a small but strong people, bearing witness through our survival and our covenantal relationship with God, that the world can be a better place.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras