“Do Not Forget.”
“It is evident that we live in an age of violence and terror. There is not a continent on the globe that is not despoiled by terror and violence, by barbarism and by a growing callousness to human suffering.” It may as well have been yesterday that we heard this indictment, but it was March of 1976 when Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum shared these disarming words during a lecture titled “Religious Value in an Age of Violence” (1976 Pere Marquette Theology Lecture, 41). His message is regrettably contemporary. Rabbi Tanenbaum (1925–1992), a graduate of JTS, was a catalyst for interreligious dialogue during his lifetime. He taught through action and with a passion for Judaism that manifested itself in his work. I never knew him; however, during an internship in rabbinical school, I had the privilege to work at the foundation founded in his memory, where I pored over his writings while they were being cataloged. It is his passion that inspires my commentary to this Shabbat.
Judaism eases us into the frenetic preparations of Passover by devoting four Shabbatot prior to its arrival with specific liturgical readings. This week’s Shabbat Zachor — the Shabbat of Remembrance that always falls on the Shabbat before Purim and includes a reading from Deuteronomy that begins with the word zachor and ends with the mandate, al tishkah — “do not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17–19). After the majesty of Sinai, we briefly return to the moment after the Exodus when the nation of Amalek threatened our infancy.
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 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!
Reading this commanded obliteration of Amalek is intentional the Shabbat before Purim. Rabbinic literature has historically cast the villain of the Purim story, Haman, as a descendant of Amalek (see Esther Rabbah 8). Like Amalek, Haman schemes to wage an unjust war on the Jewish people and wipe them out entirely. “Their laws are different from all people; nor do they keep the kings laws. Therefore it is no benefit of the king to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8–9). Haman’s solution was to annihilate the Jewish people — to destroy any remnant of them.
So, what was the egregious act of Amalek and its descendants that necessitated the total annihilation of which we read this week? Although there are clues that their brand of warfare targeted the weak, is this reasonable justification to “blot out their memory”? We can assume correctly that there are rules of warfare in Judaism, rules that command the ethical treatment of enemies. Annihilating Amalek seems inconsistent with the tenets of Judaism.
Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah, writes that the command to obliterate Amalek was harsh because they refused to make peace with Israel. When discussing what making peace with Israel consists of, he relates that foreign nations are not forced to submit to Israelite society, but to adopt the seven Noahide laws — to accept a universal standard of humanity and ethics (Hilkhot Melachim 6:4). The atrocities of Amalek, then, can be seen as an affront not only against Judaism, but against the entirety of civilization.
Never mind the genealogical link; the kinship between Amalek and Haman is evident. Both exist in a reality that does not recognize human dignity or a global ethic. Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal of Prague (1525–1609), in his commentary Or Hadash, on Megilat Esther, recognizes that their behavior is atypical, “Amalek and its ancestors are not like the rest of the nations of the world. … Amalek distinguished itself from truth and was completely different”(167). Their treatment of the Jewish people was symptomatic; Amalek and Haman did not maintain the universal standard of humanity and ethics that the rest of the world operated within.
As Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum warns, the “violence and terror” that Amalek and Haman bred persisted through his day. The disconcerting truth is that it still persists; presently in the atrocities in Darfur. According to recent estimates, almost 400,000 people have been killed since the genocide began. Millions more are displaced and threatened by starvation and violence. Armies and militias are acting contrary to the global ethic that Haman and Amalek also abused. They trample on human dignity and are categorically different from the nations of the world. They must be stopped — they must be taught to recognize that human dignity must be afforded to everyone. To be sure, the preferred solution is diplomatic, but whatever the result, we cannot stand by as this scar on the face of humanity grows.
In his address, Rabbi Tanenbaum called for seven definitive actions to ensure the atrocities of the Holocaust could not recur. They included “establishing a ‘new humanism’ to restore the Biblical value of each human life,” engendering “a national and international attitude of scorn and contempt for those who use violence,” and recognizing “the fundamental interdependence of all human rights” (53–55). It is time we actually learn from his words.
This year, we must learn that the haunting refrain from Shabbat Zachor — “do not forget” —applies to all genocide. We remember Amalek, but we cannot help but think of the millennia of violence that followed. As Jews, we do not have the monopoly on genocide, but our collective memory inspires us to step forward and act in the name of human dignity. This year, we must reach beyond the “growing callousness to human suffering” that permeates our world. This year, we must seek the good of all people, and peace to allour generations (see Esther 10:3).
Rabbi Marc Wolf
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.