Remembering Amalek

A serious lesson that focuses on fighting evil precedes the Purim fesitivites.

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Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

Purim opens on a somber note. Haman is identified as the descendant of Amalek, whose people attacked Israel in the desert, the symbol of cruelty to the weak. Before celebrating the defeat of the wicked, one must remember that God (as well as God's people) has a war with the Amalekites and will not be at ease until the Amalekites are blotted out. Jews are pledged to work for the end of oppression of the weak everywhere; a temporary, partial victory should not blind one to the persistence of evil in the world.

 On the Sabbath before Purim, the portion of the Torah dealing with Amalek is read. This day is called Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. It is a special mitzvah [commandment] of the Torah to hear the reading and thus remember.

Zachor [remembrance] is a mitzvah that has made modern Jews uncomfortable. The natural desire to forget and be happy collides with the ongoing pain of memory and analysis. When asked why President Ronald Reagan in 1985 initially declined to visit the Dachau concentration camp, a presidential aide explained that the President was an "up" type of person and did not like to "grovel in a grisly thing."

Modern people who are future-oriented stress the need to forgive. They argue that there will be no reconciliation as long as the memories of the cruelties and atrocities of the past are preserved and thrown in the face of those involved. "Forget and forgive" becomes the slogan. This argument can even take the form of an attack on the victims for keeping the memory alive. In May 1985, a storm of opposition arose against President Reagan's visit to the Bitburg, Germany, military cemetery because the ceremony involved paying homage and laying a wreath in a cemetery with graves of SS Soldiers. During the uproar, one German parliamentarian attacked the Jews for their unchristian-like refusal to forget the past!

never forget

Avoiding Past Mistakes

The primary lesson of Parashat Zachor [the special section of the Torah read on that Shabbat] is that true reconciliation comes through repentance and remembrance. Confronting the evils of the past is the most powerful generator of moral cleansing and fundamental reconciliation. Repentance is the key to overcoming the evils of the past. When people recognize injustice they can correct the wrongdoing and the conditions that lead to it. In the 20th century, repentance has liberated many Christians from past stereotyping and hatred of Jews, thus beginning to transform Christianity into a gospel of love, which it seeks to be.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).