Forget or Remember?
The Shabbat just preceding Purim is called “Shabbat Zakhor” because the Torah reading on that day ends with the commandment of Deut 25:17-19:
Remember (Zakhor) what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt—how he fell on you along the way, attacking the weakest among you, those who were straggling at the rear, when you were tired and weary; he lacked all common decency. When the Lord your God gives you relief from all the enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God gives you to keep as a homeland, blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens—do not forget!
The connection of these verses with the celebration of Purim is straightforward enough. The villain of the Purim story, Haman, is first introduced as “Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite” (Esther 3:1). The word “Agagite” seems to refer to a particular descendant of Amalek, the Amalekite king Agag. (We read about him in this week’s haftarah—see 1 Samuel chapter 15.) If Haman the “Agagite” was thus related to King Agag, this would mean that Haman was also a descendant of Amalek and someone who, just like Amalek, tried to do great harm to the people of Israel.
However, the commandment that ends the passage in Deuteronomy quoted above seems to contain a contradiction. How can we be commanded to blot out Amalek’s memory and in the same breath be told “do not forget”? Is it possible to simultaneously erase a memory and preserve it?
Actually, this is just a mistake in translation. It is true that Hebrew zekher sometimes means “memory” or “memorial.” But it has another meaning as well: a person’s name. Thus, when God reveals his name to Moses on Mount Horeb, He concludes by saying, “this is My name (shem) forever, and this is My appellation (zekher) for all generations” (Exod 3:15). Similarly, the expression “a righteous man’s zekher is for a blessing” (Prov 10:7) means that when a person wishes to bless someone, he often does so by invoking the name of a righteous person (“May you be like Abraham,” “May you be like Sarah”). So, when the Torah commands Israelites to “blot out the zekher of Amalek,” it means: blot out his name. This is the equivalent of saying: kill him and all his descendants, so that there will no more be anyone who bears the name of Amalek.
But if so, hasn’t this commandment already been carried out to the fullest? There still were Amalekites in the time of David (see 2 Sam. 1:1, 8:12), but according to 1 Chron 4:43, they were all eventually destroyed as a people. In fact, the very last Amalekite anyone has heard of was Haman himself, and he and all his sons were killed. Since then, the name of “Amalek” has apparently disappeared forever. If so, why do we keep reading this passage year after year?
Various answers to this question have been proposed, but the most straightforward would seem to be that of Ramban (R. Moshe b. Naḥman, or Naḥmanides): He writes that the Torah’s commandment is for us “to recount this [story] to our children and our descendants, telling them that this is what this wicked man did to us, and that is why we were commanded to blot out his name.” In other words, we were first commanded to blot out the name of Amalek until he had no descendants; but we were further commanded to tell the story to later generations, “telling them that this is what this wicked man did to us.” In this sense, Amalek became an ongoing warning, a symbol and a prototype.
To which it is necessary these days to add that Amalek is not a symbol of non-Jews in general, but only of those (usually few) people who are actually intent on doing us harm.
Right now, with anti-Jewish incidents on the rise in the U.S. and Europe, it is especially important not only to go after the guilty parties, but likewise to denounce anyone who seeks to excuse their actions or diminish their significance. And such people really do exist. But what sometimes gets a little less publicity is the great support offered Jewish communities by their non-Jewish neighbors, in fact, by governments and public officials.
One of the dumbest things I sometimes hear, especially in Israel, is “the whole world is against us” (כל העולם נגדנו). If you’re incapable of distinguishing your true enemies from others who are not at all hostile, in fact, from people who are consistently friendly toward Jews and Judaism, then all you are doing is preventing those real enemies from being identified as such. This seems to be the exact opposite of Ramban’s understanding of the Torah’s commandment: tell the story so that, when someone similar comes along, you’ll know and fight him or it with all your might.