This week, as well as the sedra of Vayikra, we have a Maftir from Devarim 25:17-19.
This Maftir – and therefore this Shabbat - is known as parashat Zachor – Remember.
We are to remember Amalek, and to ‘wipe out Amalek utterly’ – but who is, or was, Amalek?
According to the Torah, in Bereishit, he was an actual person: the son of Eliphaz, grandson of Esav. His descendants became a nomadic tribe who notably attacked the Israelites very shortly after the miracles of the Plagues, the Exodus from Egypt, and the crossing of the Reed Sea.
Agag – similar to ‘Pharaoh’ - was the hereditary name for the kings of Amalek.
They were notorious for attacking from the rear, where the women, the old and the weak travelled.
Why did they attack?
It was not because they were afraid that the Israelites would take their land – they were clearly passing through; not because they had a previous quarrel with the Israelites – unless you count the implacable enmity between Yaakov and Esav; but because the Israelites represented the existence of God in the world – and the Amalekites were atheists – ‘they did not fear God’, whereas previous tribes encountered in the Torah were idolaters.
All the nations, we are told, were in awe of God after the miracles of the Ten Plagues and especially the splitting of the Reed Sea – all but Amalek, which is why they had to attack when they did – to deny the existence of God. Even at the risk of being defeated, they made it easier for future attacks to happen.
In the Book of Samuel, Saul was ordered to destroy the Amalekites, their king and all their flocks, after his successes against the Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites and Philistines, when he was strong and triumphant. But he disobeyed God’s orders and lost his kingdom by sparing Agag’s life – Samuel killed Agag himself.
Haman was an Agagite and Mordechai and Esther were both from the tribe of Benjamin – as was Saul. So history was repeating itself – except that Esther and Mordechai, with their intense faith in God, were able to triumph.
Also – Amalek is present in each of us – our inner Amalek - the little voice that derides truth and goodness, doubting our own or others’ sincerity, allowing ourselves to override our conscience, whether it be in matters between us and God, or us and other people.
It is so easy to see faults in others, but before we ‘wipe out Amalek utterly’ in other peoples, other nations or other belief systems, as ordered in Parashat Zachor, we need to root it out in ourselves!