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War and Remembrance

The Torah commands us to remember the evil of Amalek — but also to forget.

I’d eaten hamantaschen as a kid in the 1950s and knew the children’s song “Oh once there was a wicked wicked man and Haman was his name, sir.”  I’d heard war stories from my father who served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army. And I’d read Elie Wiesel and watched Alain Resnais’s documentary “Night and Fog,” whose footage of naked, emaciated corpses being bulldozed into pits after the liberation of the concentration camps permanently scarred my consciousness. But I had not discovered that unique embodiment of evil, the figure of Amalek, through whose lens many Jews view the historic enemies of our people, until a late summer morning in 1971. 

I was a rabbinical student at the time, working at a Jewish summer camp in upstate New York, and fortunate to have this first encounter with Amalek in the company of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of the Renewal movement and himself a refugee from Nazi Europe. We were nearing the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings and had reached Parashat Ki Teitzei (literally “when you go out”), which begins by outlining the laws of war. Zalman noted that the following week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“when you come in”), begins with laws related to settling the promised land. One Shabbat we leave home to go to war, the next Shabbat we return home. Home is the place that gives war its meaning.  

I was moved by the words the Torah prescribes for the officer who addresses the Israelite soldiers just before they go into battle: “Is there anyone here who has built a new house but not yet lived in it? Let him go back to his home lest he die in combat and another live in it.” An exemption from war for one who has just begun to turn a house into a home. First complete the work of making a home, then go off to war.  

Of course, there were no such exemptions for that generation of young Israelites, all of whom had been born in the wilderness, children of former slaves, and who now stood on the edge of the Jordan River preparing to conquer the promised land, their future home. It is in that context that Moses delivers this message:

Remember what Amalek did to you as you were leaving Egypt, how they surprised you when you were exhausted and famished, and mercilessly cut down those who lagged behind. And so when your God finally grants you a rest from all the enemies that surround you in the land that your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.

I understood those words as intended to harden the hearts of young soldiers. They were designed to say, in effect: Amalek’s attack against us was not merely an ambush that caught us with our pants down. It was a cruel attack upon the old, the weak and the feeble. So not only must you remember. You must hate this enemy, one unlike any other. 

But Zalman did not present these verses to us in their historical context. He asked us rather to ponder the paradox intrinsic to the wording of the final verse: Remember what Amalek did. Blot out the remembrance of Amalek. Do not forget. That is, remember not to remember; don’t forget. A veritable Zen koan.  

Years later, I learned from my friend Michael Kovner, the son of the Vilna-born partisan fighter and poet Abba Kovner, that his father had often observed: “The only way to remember the Holocaust is to forget.” What nuance and tang that observation offers to the old truism that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. 

Zalman taught us the Hasidic mode of understanding Amalek as the yetzer hara, the instinct for evil that dwells within each of us. Be it jealousy, anger, bitterness, lust or greed, it too is a gift from God. But you have to learn to play with it — sometimes roughly, always creatively — in order to move yourself away from the cruelty and resentment it reliably inspires. In his book, Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters, Zalman explains how the Maggid of Kozhnitz, an 18th century Polish rebbe, came to the conclusion that loving can also be a way to get rid of Amalek.  

That might have been a convincing teaching for unarmed Jews living in Eastern Europe 300 years ago. But for Jews living under fire today, Amalek is a tantalizing and dangerous rallying cry. Believing in the irredeemable evil of our enemies can psychologically empower us to act with the same viciousness we perceive on the other side. Is there a way to fight an enemy without becoming them? That question has haunted humanity since World War II, and it remains the great moral challenge facing us today. 

The Israeli philosopher Shmuel Hugo Bergman claimed that there have always been two contending Jewish peoples that promulgate two utterly incompatible forms of Judaism. One Judaism is isolationist and xenophobic and cultivates an Amalek complex, ever stressing the centrality of remembering what Amalek did to us. The other is a Judaism of love and forgiveness that emphasizes the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself. The latter Judaism, he noted, offers this prayer: “Please allow us to forget about Amalek.”

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on March 2, 2024. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here. 

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