Facing Amalek, Facing Ourselves: Reading Parashat Zakhor this Year

Rabbi Ethan Tucker
Friday, March 3, 2023

This Shabbat we will read Parashat Zakhor, remembering the command to blot out Amalek.  And then we will head into Purim, recalling a time when Jews took up arms to defend themselves from annihilation.

This week, we have once again experienced Jews being attacked and murdered with their guard down.  It is thus natural to reach for Parashat Zakhor when seeking vengeance for what was taken from us.  It can seem like a made-for-the-moment text: a passage in the Torah that calls out those who prey on the weak, and demands that we identify the external enemy who took them down and eradicate them.

But this week, we also saw a great desecration of God’s name, as religious Jews torched hundreds of homes in the village whence the attackers came.  Pausing to daven Maariv as the flames rose from the village, these young men, wearing their kippot and tzitzit, may have felt they were fulfilling the Biblical command we read about this week: taking revenge on our enemies.  They may have felt triumphant echoes of the megillah–“וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם כִּרְצוֹנָם–the Jews dealing with their enemies as they see fit.” (Esther 9:5).

In reality, though, they were reminding us about the real essence of the war against Amalek: how only a hair’s breadth separates Israel from its arch enemy.  The preying on the weak, the loss of moral compass, the pursuit of power without restraint or protocol—these are the Amalekite tendencies that are latent within all of us, especially Israel.

A close reading of Tanakh and midrash yields this conclusion.

There are two accounts of the desert battle with Amalek in the Torah; we read one on the Shabbat before Purim (Devarim 25:17-19) and one on Purim morning (Shemot 17:8-16).  Though both feature the threat and command to wipe out Amalek, the passage from Shemot reads unremarkably like any battle scene with one of Israel’s enemies, whereas the passage from Devarim seems, in using the unusual phrase וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ - ‘he attacked you from the rear,’ to make claims about Amalek’s unusual cruelty. We are thus drawn to conclude that the Torah’s intense hatred of Amalek derives from their tactics of warfare; not the fact that they fought Israel, but how they fought.

The verb לזנב - to attack from the rear - resurfaces later in the Bible, however, in reference to Israel. In the aftermath of Yehoshua’s hard-fought victory over the town of Ai and his treaty with the residents of Giv’on, five Emorite kings band together to try to stop the Israelites’ momentum by destroying Giv’on.  After Yehoshua’s troops successfully defend Giv’on and completely rout the attackers, he orders his troops as follows:

יהושע י:יט
וְאַתֶּם אַל־תַּעֲמֹדוּ רִדְפוּ אַחֲרֵי אֹיְבֵיכֶם וְזִנַּבְתֶּם אוֹתָם אַל־תִּתְּנוּם לָבוֹא אֶל־עָרֵיהֶם כִּי נְתָנָם ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם בְּיֶדְכֶם: 

Yehoshua 10:19
“Don’t stop! Chase after your enemies and attack them from the rear--וזנבתם אותם--don’t let them reach their towns, for the Lord your God has delivered them into your hands.”
Yehoshua’s command to his troops mirrors Devarim’s description of what Amalek did to Israel.  Yehoshua, Israel’s general who witnessed the tactics of Amalek and defeated them, later seems to order the same sort of warfare himself.  Obviously, distinctions can be drawn.  Devarim describes Amalek as attacking the נחשלים, a word, though without parallel elsewhere in Tanakh, that is generally taken to refer to weak defenseless non-combatants, whereas Yehoshua’s command is clearly focused on soldiers fleeing from battle.  Amalek attacked a civilian camp; Yehoshua attacked an army.  Nonetheless, the striking similarity of language--these are the only two places in all of Tanakh where זנב is used as a verb--cannot be avoided. 

Indeed, in Shemot 17:16, we are told that the divine war against Amalek is “מִדֹּר דֹּר”– in each and every generation. God’s battle with Amalek seems to be cast as one that is eternal because it takes on different forms in different generations.  There is always an Amalek, but it may have different faces at different times.  We must be able to see the different faces of Amalek, in all its possible manifestations.

One idea explored in our tradition is that Amalek is nothing more than the messenger sent to punish Israel for its failures.  In this reading, the most important thing for us to understand about Amalek is the root causes of its appearance in Israel’s story.  Various midrashim diagnose the attack of Amalek as a symptom of deeper diseases that course through Israel.  These include eroded commitment to Torah (רפיון ידים מן התורה) or unethical behavior (Mekhilta Beshallah 1).  Most haunting is the following midrash, which creatively reads our passage in Devarim 25:18: 

אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ-לֹהִים:

The plain meaning of this verse is probably that Amalek, not fearing God - וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ-לֹהִים - happened upon you and attacked the weak among you at your tail, while you were tired and weary.  But this midrash says:  ולא ירא אלהים--אלו ישראל שלא היו בידם מצות.  It is Israel who did not fear God and follow God’s mitzvot, and therefore were weak and vulnerable. What is most haunting about this derashah is that once you hear it, the syntax of the verse in Devarim almost seems to demand this interpretation: You, Israel, were faint, weary, and lacking fear of God.

There is yet another aspect to Amalek that gives us pause, one that reflects its very close relationship to Israel.  In the book of Shoftim, the prophet Devorah sings a victory song in which she runs through the various Israelite tribes who proved either their valor or their diffidence during the war against Sisera and Midian.  Her comment on the tribe of Efraim is the following: מני אפרים שרשם בעמלק--from Efraim, their roots in Amalek (Shoftim 5:14).  The traditional commentators interpret this to mean that Efraim’s courage stems from its prior conflict with Amalek: Yehoshua, a member of the tribe of Efraim, was the first to engage the battle with Amalek, and from this history Efraim drew the subsequent strength to come to Devorah and Barak’s aid.  The verse, however, is obscure, and there are other connections between Efraim and Amalek that may be intended here.  Shoftim 12:15 tells us that the judge Avdon ben Hillel was buried in the country of Efraim on הר העמלקי - the hill country of Amalek - seemingly indicating that Efraim displaced Amalek in securing its share of the land of Israel.  Efraim thus sits on the ruins of Amalek, and its roots are quite literally intertwined with Amalek’s history.

This shadowy connection between Efraim and Amalek runs deeper.  Efraim is Yitzhak’s great-grandson, through the line of Ya’akov.  Amalek is also Yitzhak’s great-grandson, through the line of Esav (Bereshit 36:12).  Amalek is therefore a direct descendant of Avraham Avinu as well.

Perhaps this is the sense of the tantalizing statement that אין זרעו של עמלק נופל אלא ביד בנה של רחל. (Pesikta Rabbati 13)  Only a child of Rahel can defeat Amalek’s line; Yehoshua, Shaul, Mordechai and others must confront Amalek because Amalek is their mirror image and only a person himself can slay his own shadow.

Amalek is closer to us than we like to think. Amalek is the path not taken, Israel’s doppelganger in history, reflecting what might have been and what is still always possible if we lose our way.  The holy war against Amalek is thus always also one against our own failings, the recognition that our own missteps can ultimately come back to haunt and debilitate us.  Amalek is thus not only significant as a historical people, but perhaps even more prominently as a specter of what Jews and Judaism can become if they stray from the correct path.

How do we show up to Parashat Zakhor this Shabbat?  This year, it would be a distortion and moral blindness to direct our thoughts primarily outwards to external threats and Jewish vulnerability.  We must listen carefully to the midrashic reading of ולא ירא אלהים and look deeply into the mirror that it holds up to us – to force ourselves, even if we are in grief, not to look away.  This is a year to focus on the Amalek that projects for us the threat of an Israel gone astray.  Only we can slay that enemy.  Only we can say, לא זו דרכנו—this is not the way we defend the Jewish people.  Remember this—do not forget.