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Remember or Erase? Which is it?

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

The paragraph we read to describe our ‘mitzvah of Amalek’ is from Ki Tetzeh (25:17) and it states that we must ‘remember what Amalek did during our exit from Egypt’ and also to ‘erase his memory.’ The apparent contradiction is quite clear: How can we have the command to remember and be told to forget?! Added to this difficulty is what God says at the end this week’s parsha, Be’Shalach, ‘I will erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens’; if God says He will do it, what then is our job?

The true mitzvah is to remember as commanded to us in the beginning of the mitzvah paragraph; we must bring into our consciousness exactly what Amalek did, and this is the mitzvah. Then we are told how to go about acting upon that total understanding of his evil: we must obliterate all remembrance of him.  It is only with the correct understanding of how bad the nation was that we can then act upon it correctly.  Therefore, to fully perform the mitzvah commanded to us we must, after ‘remembering’ (i.e. understanding) the evil, then act upon it.  If we have truly performed the ‘understanding mitzvah’ correctly, we will surely have act upon it having been faced with an understanding of such evil!

Shaul, faced with an actual physical nation of Amalek, had the opportunity to complete this mitzvah fully (Shmuel I 15) by obliterating that enemy nation.  However, what can we do?  There is no physical nation and even if there was, not all of us are soldiers (or are not allowed to pick up a gun and start shooting people we think should be killed).  Can we therefore not complete this mitzvah fully?  Does this uniquely national/historic mitzvah lose its relevance in our days? No.  If you look at the word used for the command to ‘erase’, the root is ‘מ.ח.ה. which can mean obliterate (physically wipe out a physical national body), but it can also mean to ‘oppose’, as in opposing or battling against an idea.  This tells us that we, who do not have the opportunity to fight (physically) an Amalek nation, can nonetheless complete the mitzvah by fighting against that which Amalek represents, opposing the ideals they lived by (even if it is found in another nation or in another government).  That we can and are required to do.  If we ‘remember’ correctly, if we raise that which Amalek did in our consciousness well enough, it then causes us to defy those ideals where ever we find them; then, we have completed the mitzvah.

This also answers how the mission we are charged with and what God states He will take care of differ: in our parsha, God declares that He will take care of ‘obliterating’ the physical nation of Amalek (e.g. charging Shaul, through Shmuel, His navi) from ‘under the heavens’; however, after the actual nation has been Divinely destroyed, we, in our generation, must take up the fight to ‘oppose’ the philosophies that reflect the very same the previous evil nation of Amalek espoused.

But what is this philosophy of Amalek? What characteristic attributes reflect what the physical nation of Amalek was all about which we must oppose wherever we find them? What are we supposed to remember that Amalek did?  What should we remember that will therefore cause us to act? The Torah reports that upon our exit from Egypt, ‘[Amalek] picked off the weak from behind while we were tired and weary’ (Devarim 25:18) - totally counter to the accepted rules of etiquette in war, battle, duels, confrontations that one cannot hit from the back or attack the women, children, sick, etc. But they decided that they could redefine the rules because they were strong enough to do so.  We are also told to remember that ‘they had no yirat Elokim’ (ibid) and if we understand ‘yirat Elokim’ as the basic understanding of God’s overarching presence and universal kingship in the world, i.e. the basic acceptance of a fundamental moral and ethical code, when Amalek ‘doesn’t have’ this, they are denying the ‘right’ that God set up for the world with their ‘might’.

So, forever more Amalek represents a mentality of ‘might (Man-power, human strength) makes right’ (defines the rules that govern society, that states what is right and what is wrong) while the Jews represent the opposite mentality of ‘right (God’s rules of how to live, what is correct to do and what’s not - according to Him) makes might (once we do what we are supposed we are deserving of God’s might, of His help, which spans from destroying our enemies to feeding us and everything in between).  These two mentalities are diametrically opposed:  Amalek’s establishes the world as a society which they can determine based on their superior might - their might therefore defines what is right, what rules are to be lived by; ours is a total Godly based world, serving God and having Him define our world and consequently becoming mighty because of that dedication and the leading of that Divinely defined life.

This is the philosophy we have to remember and this is what we must oppose (physically or idealistically) no matter where it may be found.


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