Head of School Blog Post

Shabbat Zakhor (The Shabbat of Remembrance)

The Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zakhor (The Shabbat of Remembrance). We have a special Torah Reading which recounts the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Haman was considered to be descendent of Amalek which is why we read this section of the Torah on the Shabbat before Purim. This Mitzvah (to hear the parashah of Amalek read from the Torah) is considered by many Jewish legal authorities to be a Biblical Commandment.

The section of the Torah that we read is from the Book of Deuteronomy 25: 17-19 and it goes as follows:

יז  זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ

עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם.

17 Remember what Amalek did to

you on the way, at your going out of Egypt;

יח  אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ--וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים.

18 how he encountered you by the way, and attacked your tail, all the beaten down ones at your rear, while you were faint and weary; and did not fear God.

יט  וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב, בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה-אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח.  {פ}

19 So it shall be, when the LORD your God gives you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you are not to forget. {P}

The plain meaning of the text is that we should wipe out the memory of what Amalek did to the Israelite people when they left Egypt. Traditionally, this was understood — in a morally complicated way — to mean that Jews had an obligation to kill all Amalekites: men, women, and children. But since no one walks around these days claiming Amalekite as their ethnicity, it’s tough to know who we should be blotting out, or even what that blotting out would entail. This is an ancient problem and by the of time the Talmud, the rabbis taught that the nations of the world had intermingled to the extent that it was no longer possible to tell who was an Amalekite, and who was not.

Some traditional commentators have understood Amalek not as a nation or ethnicity, but rather as a mindset or ideology. In the 12th century, Maimonides wrote that the commandment to wipe out Amalek only applied when Amalek refused to make peace with Israel. This seems to imply that it is not the nationality which is a problem, but rather the war-mongering spirit of Amalekites.

The late Reform Jewish writer, educator and social activist Leonard Fein shared a very different take on Parashat Zakhor. He recounted the view of a Hasidic rabbi of several centuries ago. This rebbe turns the reading of cursing Amalek around into a moral indictment of the Children of Israel.

The text of the Torah that we read for Shabbat Zakhor recounts that the stragglers attacked by the Amalekites were akharekha (“behind you”) but they were also treated as akher (as “other” than you). If the Israelites had embraced the stragglers (i.e., those who were weak or disabled) and kept them within the sheltering arms of the Israelite camp, the Amalekites could not have harmed them.

As we observe Jewish Disability, Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) this February we have a moral responsibility to include those who are disabled in our communities so that we don’t repeat the error of B’nei Yisrael in the desert when they were leaving Egypt. In this reading, blotting out the memory of Amalek is actually about us and not forgetting that we have left out members of our community in the past and that we need to actively remember to include everyone in our community. I hope you will join me by thinking of this interpretation of Parashat Zakhor this Shabbat and remembering to include our entire community in our tent.

Rabbi Malkus delivered a version of this D’var Torah originally at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s February Board of Directors Meeting. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is a partner for the CESJDS and Jewish education in the DC.

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