02/26/2015 12:09 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2015

On Remembering Amalek

This coming Sabbath in the Jewish calendar is known as Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembering. It is the Sabbath that precedes the holiday of Purim, which Jews around the world celebrate next week, to remember how they were saved from the evil machinations of a Persian man named Haman, who sought to annihilate the Jews of Persia (today's Iran!), according to the Biblical story as told in the book of Esther, which is read in full on this holiday.

On this Sabbath, we read special verses from the book of Deuteronomy at the end of weekly Torah reading:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt, how undeterred by the fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you should blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

In Jewish Tradition, Haman was considered a descendent of Amalek, so that on the holiday of Purim, Jews remember his attempts to annihilate our people by listening carefully to the reading of the Scroll of Esther in the synagogue and making lots of noise to eradicate his name.

Who exactly is Amalek that we seek to blot out his name and at the same time keep his memory alive?

In the traditional Jewish mindset, he is the classic anti-Semite, the one who attacks innocent Jewish women and children when they are weak and helpless (mostly in the Diaspora, but also now in Israel). In today's terms, he would be called a "terrorist" since he attacks Jews just because they are Jews, and focuses on innocent civilians, whether in Paris and Copenhagen, or in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

But the holiday of Purim can lead also to hatred and vengeance. When I was young and grew up in a Reform Jewish congregation, we never read the whole book of Esther, so I never got to the back of the book. Only when I got to Israel did I discover that in chapter nine of the book of Esther we read about the large counter-pogroms that the Jews enacted against Haman's children and their families! This was somehow purposefully overlooked in classical Reform Judaism, which preferred to stress the ethical parts of the Bible and tended to ignore the more violent stories.

This remembering of Amalek -- and the commandment to wipe out any memory of him -- allegedly led Baruch Goldstein to kill 29 innocent Muslims who were praying in the famous Ibrahim mosque in Hebron 21 years ago, just before the holiday of Purim. And it leads too many Jews to see all Muslims or all Arabs or all Palestinians as descendants of Amalek, and thus fosters an unhealthy spirit of vengeance against others who are not of the Jewish tribe.

However, there are other Jewish interpretations of who Amalek is and how we should relate to him. I learned one such interpretation from Professor Menachem Klein who teaches in the Department of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and lives in Jerusalem, and who wrote last year about how Amalek can be understood differently.

Today, Amalek does not exist, but Amalekite behavior exists and must be confronted... The Hasidic commentary on Amalek sees Amalek as a very negative character trait. According to the Hassidic approach, the battle with Amalek is an inner struggle that every Jew conducts within himself. Preachers with a social and political orientation see Amalek as a radical anti‐Jewish stance on the part of individuals and groups from the nations of the world. They distance "Amalekite" behavior beyond man and the Jewish collective. (Shabbat Shalom, Issue #845, Purim 5774, 2014)

Klein ended his article about Amalek by bringing a profound and inspirational quote not from a Reform or Liberal rabbi but from one of the most famous Orthodox rabbis in modern history, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), who was one of the founders of Modern Orthodoxy in Germany. In bringing this quote, Klein points out to us that it sounds like Rabbi Hirsch was writing this as if he lived in Israel today:

Do not forget this thing: If the day comes and you want to be similar to Amalek and their likes, and you will not know the obligation, and you will know not God, but you will just look for opportunities in small and big matters, to exploit your superiority only to harm mankind, "don't forget" the moral mission of Israel... Remember the land soaked with tears that cause the laurel to grow for these wreaths. Do not forget this thing, for when the day comes when you yourself will suffer from the aggression and vulgarity of Amalek... Preserve your humanity and the values of integrity that you learned from God... and in the end humanity and justice will win over vulgarity and violence. (Commentary on Deuteronomy 25:19)

Accordingly, remembering Amalek can have an important moral meaning for us today, especially for us in Israel. "Amalek" can be understood as the evil within us, as individuals and as a people. We have to be mindful of this side of us and attempt to "blot it out" as much as possible, and not only accuse others of being "Amalekites".

This is our great challenge in rebuilding Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. We can no longer ignore this. On the contrary, remembering "Amalek" could help us in our own struggle against unethical behavior, now and in the future, as Jewish people and as a Jewish nation.