Amalek Today: To Remember, To Blot Out

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Ki Tetze is a portion of great compassion (Deut 21: 10 to 25:19):

Compassion for the poor person who cannot redeem a debt-pledge, for your neighbor who might fall from the unprotected roof of your house, for your enemy whose sheep has wandered away, for a mother bird who is sitting on her eggs. –- Then suddenly there is this puzzling, paradoxical command:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the road as you came forth from Mitzrayyim, the Narrows: how he met you on the road and smashed the stragglers among you, all who were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary. For he did not revere the Divine Creative Power.

“When YHWH [Yahh, the Breath of Life] your God has given you safety from all your enemies that surround you, in the land that YHWH gives you for an inheritance to possess it, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget!”

Is this story and this command to be seen only as a bit of Jewish historical experience, with no interest to anyone else?

Or is it, like other parts of Torah, an archetypal tale about a problem that many cultures and many human individuals may face? -- I think it can teach us all of us, any of us, how to deal with atrocious attacks and their perpetrators.

During the millennia of Jewish statelessness and little political power, this passage was only paradoxical and puzzling. "Remember ... blot out the memory ... Do not forget ... " Are these a contradiction? Or a -- what?

For Purim, the boisterous festival of early spring, Jews resolved the paradox with a joke.

Why not? After all, the traditional reading for that festival -- the Scroll of Esther – is itself a double joke:

For Haman, the villainous prime minister who in the story would have destroyed the Jews – ends up hanged on the same gallows he had intended for the Jewish leader.
And the pompous king who starts the story by insisting that neither his Queen nor any other woman would refuse to follow his orders – ends the story by doing exactly what his new Queen tells him to.

"Hoist on your own petard, slipping on your own banana peel" –a classic joke. Laughter and ridicule: the weapon of the powerless.

So what the powerless Jews of almost two millennia did to "blot out the memory" of Amalek was to shake noisemakers at the mention of the name of Haman the Amalekite.

How do we know this was a joke? Because we are at the same time commanded to hear every word of the very Scroll that we drown out with our noise. 

But what happens when powerless Jews -- or anyone and any people that has been powerless -- collect a great deal of political and military power? On Purim morning of 5754 (1994), the paradox became a terror.

Purim morning. I have been up half the night, celebrating the hilarious festival of spring fever: reading Esther's tale of masks and ridicule; wearing my Hassid-diamond-merchant costume that goes so well with my beard; drinking enough, as the Talmud commands, to forget the difference between the blessed liberator and the cursed murderer; swinging a noisemaker; dancing and telling bawdy jokes and acting out a Purimspiel that pokes fun at rabbis, at Jewish life, at the Torah itself.

But now on Purim morning, the radio is muttering at me. It will not stop.
What is it saying? No! Some Jew has entered the mosque in Hebron with a machine gun -- no. no. -- and has fired at Moslems prostrate in prayer -- no. no. no no. -- and killed maybe thirty -- no no no no no –
It is the mosque at the Tomb of Abraham, Abraham our Father, father of Jews and Arabs, blessing to the world -- oh no oh no oh no ----
No no no no no no no no no no.
I lie in the bed sheets, dazed into silence, into a trance, but I know know know know, no no no no no no no.

I know at once this is no isolated crazy, this "Baruch Goldstein" who has murdered thirty of my cousins.

I know at once, he has decided on this Purim to "blot out the memory of Amalek" not with a noisemaker but a machine gun. He has confused the difference between "Baruch" and "Aror," " Blessed" and Accursed," by drinking not rivers of schnapps with a L'Chaim, "To Life," but rivers of blood with L'Mavet: "To Death."

 He has turned his own name, his own self, from Baruch – Blessed – to Aror, Accursed.

The seemingly nightmarish story of the Scroll of Esther is a fantasy, a joke. One piece of the fantasy is a bitter tale that on the very day Haman/ Amalek intended to destroy the Jews, they instead killed 75,000 of their enemies. The fantasy of the powerless that once, just once, they could fight back and destroy everyone who ever sneered at them.

But Goldstein took the story at face value. Why?

In the generation after the Nazi Holocaust -- the Holocaust that actually did happen, the one from which no Queen Esther saved the Jews -- this archetypal myth of disaster bites home with intense cruelty and fear. Suddenly, Jews for whom the Amalek mythos had become somewhat quiescent, become attuned to it.

And then, once that nerve of stark terror had been plucked, it would not stop quivering. In our generation, for some Jews the Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, become Amalek. Some Palestinians are terrorists? Some Palestinians call publicly for the State of Israel to be shattered? And some Lebanese, organized in Hezbollah? Iranians, whose president pooh-poohs the Holocaust? For some, the archetypes of fear slide into place: For some, all Palestinians are Amalek.
And for some, Hezbollah. And for some, Iran. And for some, all Arabs.

For members of other communities, some other version of "Amalek" resides in their own memories:
For people who have been abused as children, it may be a terrifying vision of the entire world. Or of all men.

For some Palestinians, it may be Israel. For some Americans since 9/11, it may be "jihadis," or "radical Islamists." Or even all Muslims.

For some Iraqis, it may be America. For some Americans –- especially some soldiers stretched beyond their limits by a war to suppress a people's rebellion -- it may be Iraqis, any and all of them.
And what happens when abused children grow into powerful grown-ups? For some, the need to prevent abuse and the tug to reenact it fuse into becoming preemptive abusers. The vengeful fantasies of the powerless become the oppressive actions of the powerful.

For one of the most dangerous stances in the world is thinking you are a powerless victim when you actually have great power. Even if you are also vulnerable, as well as powerful, forgetting your power and remembering only your weakness endangers yourself and everyone else.

We live in a generation when Jews have great power but are also vulnerable. Bombs in a pizzeria, rockets landing on Haifa remind us that we are vulnerable even when we have enough power to smash another nation.

That is the condition not only of newly powerful Jews, but of all the powerful. The America that could destroy the world and has indeed ruined Iraq was, is, still vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
So each people must re-imagine how to deal with its own Amalek. How to deal with those who would destroy us if they could, and who have the power to wound us.

So let us go back to Torah. What does it mean to blot out the memory of Amalek? The key command has three parts: First, "Remember what Amalek did to you." Then, "When your God brings you safely into the land, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek."Finally, "Don't forget."

Barbara Breitman, a psychotherapist and spiritual director who teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, often deals with adults who were abused as children. She teaches that this means: --

· First, the victim must clearly and fully recover the memories of victimization and abuse.

· But then, when the victim is no longer weak and powerless but safe in a good place, we must no longer be obsessed with the abuser; for it is exactly an unrealistic and obsessive fear that will drive us to repeat the abusive acts of Amalek.

· Finally, learn to hold all this in exquisite balance. Don't forget you could become a victim; don't forget that you could become an abuser. Don't forget top keep making conscious choices.

And Rabbi Tirzah Firestone points out that Amalek was a descendant of Esau, that grandson of Abraham who was cheated out of the birthright and the blessing that would have let him follow in Abraham's footsteps.

So Amalek is part of our own family -- the residue of rage that sprang from the grief and anger Esau felt. Amalek is always a possibility within us, as well as in others. The Torah is teaching that we must blot out every urge to become Amalek, our own as well as others' -- by turning that urge toward compassion.

On Purim morning in the Tomb of Abraham, Goldstein himself was Amalek, attacking people from the rear, attacking those who had humbled themselves in prayer.

Purim 5754 taught us that Amalek is a way of living, not a specific ethnic community.

Persians long ago and Iranians today; Germans last generation, Arabs and Jews today can choose to behave like Amalek or like Queen Esther -- who risked her life to challenge a king to do justice.

Purim 5754 also taught us that we have to change what we teach. Under new conditions, the old ways of interpreting Torah can lead straight to murder. Jews have long demanded that Christians and Muslims face the ways in which their traditions have been used to justify the murder of Jews. Now Jews as well -- Jews alongside Muslims and Christians -- must look inward.

We must all face and repudiate the elements of our different religious traditions that lead to the dehumanization and murder of others – Palestinians, Israelis, Lebanese.

Our peoples must affirm that we are hooked to each other like Siamese twins. So each has a positive need and goal not only to keep "myself" healthy, but also my twin.

Our peoples must face the always-recurring "Amalek-urge" WITHIN our selves, and act to prevent the urge from turning into action.

How do we translate such a new vision into public policy? By demanding that each side seek to create the maximum degree of self-government and security for the other side that is consonant with its own basic security, not the minimum it can get away with.

By that test, for example, most Jews would probably conclude that West Bank settlements are harmful to Israel. Most Palestinians would probably conclude that bombing Israeli pizzerias is harmful to Palestinians. The head of Hezbollah has actually publicly announced that he now knows that crossing the border to capture Israeli soldiers, even in the hope of trading them for Lebanese captives, was harmful to Hezbollah and Lebanon.

For Jews, Muslims, and Christians, these new understandings of all our religious traditions must become not only the fabric of prayers and celebrations, but the test of public policy, so that they become profoundly part of everyday life and sacred truth.



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