I love when the Jewish library offers a scavenger hunt. A trail of connecting texts across Torah, Tanach and Rabbinic writing which comes together to tell a story bigger than any of its parts.
This week provides such a moment. And from a very unpromising start, we can end up somewhere rather beautiful. Shabbat Zachor, meaning the Shabbat of remembrance, is when we have a deoraita (from the Torah) commandment to remember when Amelek attacked the weakest of the Israelites leaving Egypt with the following exhortation: “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
The commentators link this passage to Samuel 15:3 where God instructs Saul (via the prophet Samuel) to take on Amalek at war, killing the entire people including children and animals. It’s a harrowing idea to hold in mind (particularly as we witness a war in our times where innocent adults, children and animals are caught up in violence they never wanted). Saul does attack Amalek in war but spares King Agag, letting him live. His descendent, of course, is Haman haAgagi. For those listening closely to the Megillah next week, you’ll hear that Mordechai is “son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, a Benjaminite”. And Saul too was a Benjaminite. So Mordechai vs Haman is a replay of Saul vs Agag - this time the good guy takes out the bad guy and that’s why Shabbat Zachor is before Purim.
Returning to our chilling commandment to blot out the name of Amalek, where did Amalek come from in the first place? We first hear of Amalek in Bereishit 36: “Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz”. This is where the midrash springs into action. Timna was the sister of Lotan, one of Esau’s chiefs, and therefore the daughter of royalty. The midrash explains that she wanted to convert to Judaism and join Avraham’s household. She went to Abraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, but since they would not accept her, she went and became the concubine of Eliphaz. She declared: “Better for me to be a handmaiden to this nation [Israel], and not a noblewoman of that nation [the chiefs of Esau]” (Midrash Tannaim on Devarim 32:47).
So apparently Amalek’s mother was turned away by the Jewish people. Amalek according to this understanding would have grown up with feelings of inadequacy, rejection and exclusion. We know that these kinds of feelings can take people to a damaging place. Generations later in Egypt, with a very different power-dynamic, a latter-day Amalek sought revenge against the people who rejected his matriarch.
At the end of the scavenger hunt, how different Amalek looks, and how different is Shabbat Zachor. Rather than an “ultimate evil which we are commanded to wipe off the face of the earth - whether literally or metaphorically”, we have an Amalek who is a monster we helped to create. How would it look for Shabbat Zachor to be about remembering in the sense of learning from our mistakes? What if we remember the impact of rejecting and excluding? What if what we need to blot out is our own instinct for exclusivism, tribalism and building high walls around our community? Let’s remember our own potential to create Amaleks, and cling harder than ever to our values of being welcoming, inclusive and loving. Do not forget!