Remembering Amalek and Being Festive Amid Terror

By: Jonathan Feldstein

This week Jews observe Shabbat Zachor.  We observe Shabbat (the Sabbath) every week, but this week is special.  Zachor means “remember.”  What’s unique that we are remembering this week and why?

There is an extra reading of the Torah from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, “Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; how he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the Land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it.”

We receive God’s injunction both to remember, and blot out the remembrance of Amalek as a commandment.  But what about where God says “when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the Land which (God) gives you as an inheritance to possess.”  Are we there yet?

We read this the Shabbat before Purim, the penultimate Jewish Biblical experience when Haman tried to wipe out all the Jewish people. Why does all this resonate so much this week?

You probably heard about a recent attack, described as a pogrom, that Israelis inflicted in a Palestinian Arab village, burning cars, homes, and injuring people. One Palestinian Arab was killed.  You probably heard because there was a worldwide outcry calling on Israel to arrest and sentence the perpetrators. Some even said that Israel should make monetary compensation for the hateful and criminal acts done by the Israelis. I don’t know of a precedent for a country actually paying for damages of something done by individual citizens.

What you may not have heard about is that Israeli leaders from the Prime Minister and the President to the IDF Chief of Staff, and many, many more all have condemned these acts.

Yet what you almost for sure did not hear about is the increased wave of terror that’s been taking place in Israel.  14 Israelis have been killed in the past month. In less than two weeks, two families each buried two children, victims of Palestinian Arab hate and terror.  You also probably didn’t hear about the 27-year-old American Jew who came to the Land for a wedding, and ended his life interred in the same Land he loved.  “Old news” a month ago was the mass murder of seven Israelis on Shabbat in Jerusalem outside a synagogue.

These recent terror acts have hit a collective nerve.  Nothing justifies individuals taking justice into their own hands, terrorizing others, damaging property, and causing injuries and death.  As bad as that is, and it is, there’s no justification, Israelis are losing patience and are at a breaking point.

One friend said that while not a frequent occurrence at all, she always abhors when Israelis take the law into their own hands against Palestinian Arabs. But this made her realize that now, because of the recent wave of terror, she’s less sympathetic to the damage and loss caused by the Israelis.

Another noted that with the funerals just in the past weeks, he’s getting to the point where he feels no mercy for Palestinian Arabs.  But he also noted that he didn’t like that, and it scared him.  This is part of the conflict that Israelis live with: we don’t like it when individuals take the law into their own hands and commit hateful acts, but we like it less that our neighbors are trying to kill us, and many have died.

Another friend, a Christian who lives in Jerusalem but is from overseas happens to be overseas at the moment. We were chatting and I asked him if the stresses here make him want to be in Israel more now, or less. He replied that while he’s in the country of his birth, Israel has become home and he looks forward to returning soon.  Stresses and all.

The fact is that Israel is at war. We were born in war and have not known a day of peace, ever. Enemies still want to destroy us. But we have an army and it’s very good at tracking down and eliminating or arresting terrorists.  Israel is the start up nation, not the vigilante nation.  Events like these “reprisals” are rare.  Maybe that’s why the world condemns them, because they stand out so much.

But it’s very hard for an Israeli to sit and listen to world leaders pontificate in their safe capitals and at the UN about Israel’s responsibility for this one hateful, violent act.  It’s especially glaring because these world leaders are not denouncing the Palestinian Arabs, the Palestinian Authority, or Hamas for the constant violence, threats of violence, and incitement to violence that comes from their leaders.

It’s not only that the world leaders are screaming when it comes to Israeli citizens doing something horrible, and that is roundly denounced by Israeli leaders. The world is mute, if not blind and most definitely dumb, when it comes to Palestinian Arabs killing Israeli Jews, week after week. Rather than any denouncements from their leaders, the Palestinian Authority, its leaders, Hamas, their clergy, and average people on the street incite these and celebrate them.

In the Book of Esther (Chapter 8), after uncovering Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jews, the King says that while he cannot undo the decree that went out to all 127 provinces, he would issue a new decree. He authorized the Jews in each and every city to assemble and defend themselves, even to destroy, kill, and eliminate of people in provinces that are hostile to the Jews: Basically, they were granted royal consent to wage a total war against any enemy.

While empowering, the differences today are profound.  We have our own state.  We have an army, police, secret service, courts and, while we are threatened daily, we do not need the decree of a gentile ruler to protect ourselves. We also live under the law and don’t have license to take the law into our own hands. 

Yet overseas, where Jews are feeling the pain and fear of increased antisemitic acts and threats, and antisemites just actually held a Day of Hate, there’s much less autonomy.  I don’t imagine there’s any president, prime minister, governor, mayor, or king in the world today who will sign a decree for the Jewish people to defend themselves among the antisemites and despite the very real threats. Nor am I suggesting it. But there is a Biblical parallel of Jews in the diaspora being threatened now, and who may derive inspiration from the salvation of the Jews of Persia 2500 years ago.

At this festive season when we celebrate our redemption 2500 years ago, we are also obliged to remember the evil that persists, the physical and ideological descendants of Amalek, who we must blot out and defeat.  But that’s why we have an army.  Individuals should celebrate the miracles, but not become vigilantes.