Parshat Zachor is not a complete parshah but a passage1 that is read following the weekly Torah portion on the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim.

The reading of this segment is not linked to a particular Torah portion. Rather, the parshah to which it is added changes from year to year, depending on the calendar and on Purim’s position within the regular order of Torah readings. Nonetheless, Parshat Zachor is more than a particular commemoration within the Torah reading; it is considered an important matter unto itself, to such an extent that its name supersedes the name of the parshah that is read on that Shabbat – Shabbat Zachor.

The mitzva of remembering what Amalek did to us and the mitzva of obliterating Amalek raise many questions, problems, and misgivings about the emphasis and severity of the matter, but it also raises objections about the importance of the matter itself.

Jewish history is replete with wars, conflicts, and troubles. We grieve over these incidents because they involved loss of life, defeat, humiliation, and sometimes even protracted suffering in their wake. However, the more of these tragedies that we experience, the more we feel a certain erosion in our ability to recognize the importance of these events.

We became desensitized to tragedy; hence, even when such events caused great sorrow and grief in the past, these feelings have not endured the test of time

The Talmud discusses the list of tragedies and joyful events in Megillat Taanit. Many of these events refer to minor incidents that were commemorated for the ages as festive days on which all customs of mourning are set aside. Our sages point out that since the time Megillat Taanit was written, many other events have occurred that would also have deserved to be recorded and commemorated, only that the abundance of the events weakened their evocative power to the extent that, as our sages say, “dead flesh does not feel the scalpel.”2 That is to say, we became desensitized to tragedy; hence, even when such events caused great sorrow and grief in the past, these feelings have not endured the test of time.

This happens in people’s personal lives as well. Past events may have been very painful, but their memory becomes increasingly dulled with the passage of time. It is a physiological fact that human beings are incapable of remembering pain, and this fact influences the whole course of one’s life. Pain is felt when it occurs, but the memory of the pain cannot vividly reproduce the experience from the past. As a rule, people can recall superficially that something caused them great pain, but the pain itself cannot be re-experienced.

If that is the case in the personal life and consciousness of the individual, all the more is it so in the case of a nation, which is composed of thousands of individuals who do not feel or think all at once or in a uniform manner.

For all these reasons, the commemoration of the war with Amalek seems puzzling, and the review of it each year seems, to a great extent, like “the snows of yesteryear.” It is merely a memory, which, even when we recall it and perhaps carry it out, cannot be re-experienced. As the Torah says in the first description of the war with Amalek, “Write this in the book as a reminder, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua.”3

Although life continually produces new experiences and feelings that naturally supplant the former ones, in the life of the individual and the community there are events whose significance goes beyond remembering the past. These are formative events, events that originated in the past but have continuity, ramifications, and repercussions in the present because they open the door to long-term developments.

One’s birthday is a significant event, at least for the person himself, despite the fact that it is a thing of the past. This is because every moment of one’s life is connected with that point. Even one who does not celebrate birthdays, and even one who must strain to remember the date of his birth, is inevitably connected to it.

In the Torah there are two short sections that speak of remembering and obliterating Amalek: Exodus 17:8–16 and Deuteronomy 25:17–19. Although the description of the events there is not very detailed, it is clear enough. After the People of Israel left Egypt, while they were on the way to Mount Sinai, the Amalekites attacked them and apparently killed a number of people. After a battle that lasted for an entire day, the Amalekites were defeated and fled.

From a historical perspective, this war against the Amalekites seems puzzling. According to the Torah’s account, the Amalekites did not actually succeed in penetrating into the Israelite camp. Rather, they struck only those who were “lagging to your rear;”4 that is, people who were not in the camp itself but who, for various reasons, lagged behind.

From a historical perspective, this war against the Amalekites seems puzzling

This implies that the Amalekites were not a people with an especially large army. While the Israelites, who were not trained in warfare, had some difficulty in repulsing the Amalekites, in no way does this conflict appear to have been a major war. Rather, it appears to have been a minor incident, considering its impact and aftermath.

The Torah’s account raises a basic question: Why did the Amalekites attack the Israelite camp? Not only had the People of Israel not invaded their territory, they had not even turned in their direction! The Amalekites did not figure at all in Israel’s grand political plans and goals, nor did they reside in the territories that Israel intended to conquer.

From the Torah’s accounts about the encounters between Israel and Amalek that occurred over the following centuries, it emerges that the Amalekites were a nomadic people that lived in the wide open spaces of Transjordan, around the land of Edom and perhaps in the southern Land of Israel as well; they did not live in permanent settlements. Desert nomads have always engaged in robbery to survive. For thousands of years, nomads – in the Middle East and elsewhere – have considered it their right to rob caravans or to attack and plunder settlements. But the People of Israel traveling in the wilderness were not some small caravan; they were so numerous that it was almost impossible to view the whole extent of their encampment,5 and the temptation or motivation of nomads to attack such a camp should have been quite small.

Hence, before we discuss the question of our attitude toward Amalek, we should ask a different question: What motive did the Amalekites have to attack Israel? What was the purpose of this attack? The fact that Amalek’s attack has no rational justification presents only one possibility, which, though it may seem far-fetched, seems to be the only explanation: The Amalekites hated the People of Israel. The attack on Israel was not meant to gain anything in particular or to achieve any goal. It was purely an expression of hatred.

For generations, many people – Jews and non-Jews alike – have struggled to find an explanation for anti-Semitism, and they have offered a list of reasons for it: hatred of strangers, hatred for religious reasons, envy of the Jews’ accomplishments, etc. All of these reasons, which are treated quite extensively in scholarly literature, while perhaps not completely rational, have a basis in human nature and in outlooks that often come to expression in cases of conflict and hatred between peoples. However, age-old anti-Semitism, which, in its overt forms, is distinct and well defined, has existed for well over two thousand years, long before the emergence of Christianity.

To be sure, even in the ancient manifestations of hatred toward Israel, such as Haman and Apion of Alexandria, we find all the known elements of hatred between nations and between individuals. Nevertheless, in the hatred of Jews that has manifested itself throughout our history, there is also a trace of an additional element that cannot be explained rationally – a mysterious, fundamental hatred.

This kernel of hatred is part of anti-Semitism in all its manifestations throughout the ages. This mysterious element has no better explanation than the other mystery: the continued existence of the Jewish people. This aspect of anti-Semitism is simply a reaction to the very existence of the Jews in the world.

The same applies to the war of Amalek. This war lacked all the elements that could explain such hatred. All it had is this deep-seated hatred toward Jews simply because they are Jews. This fundamental hatred does not derive from any reason whatsoever, nor does it end when the hater recognizes and is rationally aware of the Jews’ virtues; a person or a people can recognize all these virtues and still continue to hate to the same degree. Amalek’s hatred of Israel, then, can be characterized as pure, causeless hatred, hatred that lacks a goal or a purpose. It is unqualified hatred of the very essence or existence of Israel.

Amalek’s hatred of Israel can be characterized as pure, causeless hatred, hatred that lacks a goal or a purpose. It is unqualified hatred of the very essence or existence of Israel

This point is emphasized in Parshat Zachor. The People of Israel are attacked for no reason, without any justification, while they are on their way to their ancestral homeland. Indeed, that the attack achieves only the killing of stragglers who lagged behind the camp points to the fact that Amalek cannot and dares not attack the large Jewish camp itself but can only enjoy its success in killing a few Jews in the rear.

A key to this point of fundamental hatred can be found in the very next expression in the Torah: “And he [Amalek] did not fear G‑d.”6 This expression in itself sounds almost meaningless. It is obvious that one who attacks people whom he has no reason to attack does not fear G‑d. Nevertheless, this simple expression reveals the inner root of Amalek’s hatred.

When the People of Israel goes forth from Egypt, this is not just another migration of just another people. The plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea become known far and wide, including in the Land of Israel, frightening the peoples of Canaan. It was clear not only to Pharaoh and his people but to other nations as well that unique events were occurring, a historical debut. It was clearly evident that the People of Israel were under G‑d’s protection, which manifested itself in Egypt in the form of a series of very severe and frightening plagues.

One would have expected that, as a result of these events, no one in the world would dare to challenge the People of Israel, who are under G‑d’s special protection. Indeed, not even Balak, king of Moab, who had much better reasons to fear the Jews’ presence on the border of his country, dared to fight them, because he feared this divine protection.

Amalek, however, “did not fear G‑d”; Amalek paid no regard to the divine revelation, despite the fact that G‑d clearly possessed real, frightening power and was not just an abstract theological subject. Not only does Amalek ignore G‑d’s existence as a supreme being, but they also disregard the fear and dread that fighting against His people should entail.

The Midrash describes Amalek’s behavior and its effect with the following parable:

To what may this be compared? To a boiling hot bath into which no one could descend. A good-for-nothing came and jumped into it. Although he was scalded, he made it cooler to others. Here, too, [in the case of Amalek], when Israel went forth from Egypt, The Holy One, Blessed Be He, split the sea before them and the Egyptians sunk into it, [and as a result,] the fear of Israel fell upon all the nations…When Amalek came and attacked them, even though he got what he deserved at their hands, he made them [appear] cooler to the nations of the world.7

The one who jumped into the boiling hot bath did so with the clear knowledge that he would be scalded, and that the only result of doing so would be to cool off the boiling heat. Indeed, the war with Amalek sent a message to the entire world: The People of Israel, despite its divine protection, is still vulnerable; it is possible to fight them. This message indeed made its way to the other nations. They were still afraid – “all the inhabitants of Canaan are melted away”8 – and yet they try to fight against Israel anyway.

There is another way to understand the Torah’s expression that Amalek “did not fear G‑d.” The phrase “did not fear” can be understood not only as a negation but also as a positive designation. That is to say, not only does Amalek not fear G‑d, but actually sets himself against G‑d. They “did not fear” in a deeper sense; they are the antithesis of one who fears. Not only do they reject divine authority, but they blatantly oppose it.

Amalek is not only anti-Semitic; they are anti-divine

Thus, the expression “did not fear G‑d” can be understood as the explanation of Amalek’s actions. Amalek fought against G‑d, of whose presence in this world the People of Israel is merely the physical expression. Hence, Amalek is not only anti-Semitic; they are anti-divine, and they direct their hatred of the Creator to the symbol of the Divine Presence in the world – the People of Israel, the people with whom G‑d’s name is associated,9 the people who are G‑d’s witnesses.10

In addition to all of this, there is a unique halacha regarding the conversion of an Amalekite to Judaism. Although the Amalekites are Edomites in origin, halachically they are not considered Edomites. Only the third generation of Edomite proselytes may be accepted into the Jewish people, and there it is a mitzva not to hate them, as they are our brothers. For the Amalekites, however, while we are commanded to obliterate them, if an Amalekite converts, he is accepted into the Jewish people immediately.

We see from this that the essence of being an Amalekite is not connected with one’s ethnic origin but with one’s personal orientation. When an Amalekite wants to convert, he stops being an Amalekite, unlike other peoples, whose essence does not disappear immediately upon their conversion. What emerges from this halachic definition is that “Amalek” is a spiritual state of being, much more than a biological group.

Israel’s response to Amalek, then, is not revenge for the wrong that was done to us or for the loss of life inflicted on us; it goes far beyond that. After all, there is a long list of nations that fought against Israel, and some of them caused us immeasurable injuries, yet we are not duty-bound to remember this or to take revenge on them in every generation. The war against Amalek is connected with Amalek’s essential nature.

Amalek is a state of being that is defined by hatred of Israel. Israel and Amalek cannot coexist, for the essence of Amalek’s existence is the negation of Israel. As long as there are Amalekites in the world, even if only in very small numbers, this means that there exists an element that is Israel’s antithesis, its complete opposite.

The radical statement that “neither [G‑d’s] name will be complete nor will [His] throne be complete until the eradication of the memory of Amalek”11 essentially says the very same thing. Only with the complete eradication of “Amalek” will the People of Israel’s existence be ensured for all time. For this reason, the war against Amalek continues “throughout the generations” – a “war for G‑d against Amalek.”12