By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
I’m afraid we may be remembering the wrong thing.
This week we read a passage connected to Purim, though it’s months away. We recall how the Israelites’ enemy Amalek nearly wiped them out shortly upon leaving Egypt. The connection to Purim is that Megillat Esther (3:1) tells us that Haman was himself an Amalekite.
The Jewish tradition has generally understood Amalek to be the external enemy that must constantly be destroyed. In other words, we are called upon to take up arms against someone in every generation. This position is highly dangerous.
I want to offer an interpretation from my teacher at JTS, Professor Alan Cooper, citing Rabbi Samuel ben Moses de Medina (16th century Greece).
He challenges the standard reading on two points:
1. The verse in this week’s Parsha (Dt. 25:18) reads: -וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹקים
“[Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, as you were leaving Egypt, that it happened upon you on the way and struck those of you in the back, all the weaklings behind you] when you were tired and exhausted and did not fear G-d.”
Carefully identify who the subject of the verse is. Almost all translations (including JPS) claim the ones who did not fear G-d were the callous Amalekites. But a Peshat (contextual) reading posits that the subject should be “You,” the Israelites. The Israelites were tired and exhausted, and they did not fear G-d either.
If so, why?
2. Deuteronomy 25, our Parsha, is one of two descriptions of Amalek. The other appears in the Exodus narrative in real time, in Exodus Chapter 17. Exactly what precedes the battle with Amalek? The Israelites had just finished challenging Moses and G-d at Massah U’Merivah for not providing water. The very last line (17:7) before Amalek arrives describes the people wondering? הֲיֵשׁ ה’ בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן
“Is G-d among us or not?”
Rabbi Samuel claims that it was precisely the Israelites’ lack of faith in G-d and Moses that made them vulnerable to external attack. Amalek was nothing compared to the mighty Egyptian army just defeated, but it stood a chance because it attacked when the Israelites were spiritually weak. “Remember Amalek” is an eternal rallying call for the Jews to never forget how we were nearly destroyed when we lacked faith in G-d.
I hope that when challenges face our community – as they always have and always will – that we remember to look inwards before looking outwards.