Remembering Amalek

How are we to remember forever to wipe out the memory of Amalek? I attempt an explication of a Hebrew koan.

Last week’s New Yorker has a chilling portrait by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. They seem only somewhat less bloodthirsty and racist than the terrorists of the current intifada.

Some of them have photographs in their homes of Baruch Goldstein, who slaughtered 29 Arabs as they prayed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. And some of them agree with Goldstein that the Arabs of the West Bank are covered by the Biblical injunction to war against Amalek.

As it happens, the UCLA faculty Torah study group, which has been slogging its way through Devarim (Deuteronomy) at the rate of a few verses a week for something like ten years, just got finished dealing with that commandment (Deut. 25:17-19). While the Torah has many puzzling passages, surely none is more puzzling.

Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God.

Therefore it shall be, when HaShem thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which HaShem thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.

This ties together some of the earliest material in the Torah with the very latest of the Ketubim:

“Remember” refers back to Shemot (Exodus), Chapter 17:

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.

And Moses said unto Joshua: ‘Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.’

So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, and fought with Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.

And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.

But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.

And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

And HaShem said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’

And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi.  And he said: ‘The hand upon the throne of HaShem: HaShem will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’

Part of that war is recounted in Chapter 15 of the first Book of Samuel:

And Samuel said unto Saul: ‘The HaShem sent me to anoint thee to be king over His people, over Israel; now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of HaShem.

Thus saith HaShem of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt.

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’

And Saul summoned the people, and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand footmen, and ten thousand men of Judah. And Saul came to the city of Amalek, and lay in wait in the valley. And Saul said unto the Kenites: ‘Go, depart, get you down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them; for ye showed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt.’ So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.

And Saul smote the Amalekites, from Havilah as thou goest to Shur, that is in front of Egypt.

And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.

But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, even the young of the second birth, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them; but every thing that was of no account and feeble, that they destroyed utterly.

Then came the word of HaShem unto Samuel, saying:

‘It repenteth Me that I have set up Saul to be king; for he is turned back from following Me, and hath not performed My commandments.’ And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto HaShem all night.


Then said Samuel: ‘Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.’ And Agag came unto him in chains. And Agag said: ‘Surely the bitterness of death is at hand.’ And Samuel said: As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before HaShem in Gilgal.

Back, then, to the commandment in Deuteronomy. It seems as inexplicable as a Zen koan: “Do not forget to blot out the memory of Amalek.” How could that commandment possibly be kept? It’s like an order to sit still for five minutes and not think of an elephant. As long as we carry on the fight against Amalek, so long do we prolong the remembrance of Amalek.

Moreover, the elaborate account of Amalekite guilt offered in Deuteronomy fits rather poorly with the first account of that campaign in Exodus. There, the emphasis is on the power given to the Israelites by the raising of Moses’ arms, and the support given him by Aaron and Hur when his physical strength gives out. The notion that the Amalekites attacked dishonorably is not so much as hinted at, which seems strange if their behavior was so horrible as to bring on them a war without end. And yet the text makes clear the divine intention to eliminate the Amalekites, and the commandment to Israel to war against them “from generation to generation” (i.e., forever).

In the Book of Esther, Haman, the wicked grand vizier who plots to exterminate the Jews, is referred to as an Agagite; whether that means that he is literally a descendant of Agag, or merely that he is Agag-like, isn’t clear.

At Purim, we enact blotting out the name of Haman, “the Agagite”: the descendant, literally or figuratively, of Amalek. (Goldstein committed his mass murder on the day of Purim.)  When the name is spoken, the congregation makes so much noise that it cannot be heard. In some traditions, the name “Haman” is written with chalk on the soles of the shoes, and when the name is pronounced everyone stamps his feet.

But of course all of that shouting and stamping calls attention to Haman and preserves his name, rather than effacing it. Surely there are many Jews who couldn’t tell you quite who Melchizedek was or what Josiah did, but to whom Haman is a familiar name. Whether individually or communally, wiping out the memory of something is not an activity that can continue with any hope of success; not if we are “not to forget.”

Perhaps “remembrance” (zacher) should be understood not as “memory,” but as “monument.” Then the commandment would be to extirpate the race of Amalek and eliminate any buildings or artwork or texts they might leave behind. (That’s as opposed, for example, to Hitler’s plan to wipe out the Jews but leave the Prague Ghetto as a museum of the life of the no-longer-extant people.) That seems consistent with the commandment Saul is so terribly punished for not observing.

In this sense, though the war against Amalek has reached a successful conclusion; there is no Amalekite population anywhere, no Amalekite literature, no Amalekite flag or seat at the United Nations, not even any Amalekite ruins.

But, that accomplished, what is it that we are to continue not to forget? The Rabbis largely agree that the duty to struggle against Amalek is a duty in every generation (though there is an opinion that this is one of the impossible mitzvot, designed to be studied rather than practiced).

One straightforward account is that, as the Haggadah says, “in every generation” there are those who attack Jews the way the Amalekites are said in Devarim to have attacked the Israelites, and that the war against Amalek is a war against Jew-haters of whatever ethnicity. Call that the Baruch Goldstein interpretation.

An alternative interpretation is that the fight against Amalek is never-ending because we, as individuals and as a community, have Amalek – the impulse to do violence, and in particular to do violence against the helpless – within us. And the struggle against that inner Amalekite will never reach a conclusion.

But whether the war against Amalek is taken in its nationalist or its liberal sense, it requires remembrance. If we are not to forget, then we leave a zacher, if only in our minds.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: