Thomas Moore (1779-1852) was an Irish poet. He was a friend and biographer of the great English Romantic poet Lord Byron. Today, Moore is primarily remembered for his Irish Melodies, one of which, “The Last Rose of Summer,” is a favorite of mine. There is a poem of Moore’s titled “The Light of Other Days” in Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury: Of English Verse. Here is the opening of the poem’s first stanza:
Oft in the stilly night
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me…
One of the things I enjoy, especially at this time of the year, is gazing out my bedroom window at dusk. There is something in the sky’s colors as the day moves from late afternoon to night that evokes fond memories in me—memories of people and places now gone. There is a sweetness in these memories tinged with sadness. I can no longer see or hear my parents, or visit certain areas changed much from when I knew them. Yet, my memory can recall my parents’ look, the sound of their voices. In memory, I can revisit old places the way they once were before time changed them.
Memory is a peculiar thing. It begins early in our lives and, barring certain illnesses, stays with us till the end. Most of my memories are good ones; some are not. The latter can be painful and sometimes make me wish I didn’t have them, that I could erase them somehow, blot them out forever. But, it’s not clear that blotting out bad memories is necessarily a good thing. Some bad memories call us to better behavior. For example, remembering a teacher impatient with us as we struggled to learn something can teach us to be patient when teaching others. Being betrayed by a friend can lead us to value loyalty, to remain faithful to those who trust us.
At the end of the morning service, Tehillas Hashem, the prayerbook I use, lists The Six Remembrances—six things the Torah tells us to remember every day. All six are from two biblical books, Exodus and Deuteronomy. I want to look at one of them, the third one. It is from Deuteronomy 25:17-19.
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt: how he met you on the way, and cut down all the weak who straggled behind you, when you were weary and exhausted; and he did not fear God. Therefore, when the Lord your God will relieve you of all your enemies around you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25: 17-19, Siddur Tehillas Hashem, Nusach Ha-Arizal, p. 85)
I have some questions about this remembrance:
- Who was Amalek?
- Why am I commanded to remember what he did?
- What am I supposed to do about it; what does it mean to blot out the memory of Amalek?
Note that it does not say “blot out Amalek.”
I am not a biblical scholar. Minds better than mine have provided answers to these questions. I tell you this, not so you overlook my factual errors. I say it so that you understand that the suggestion I make later on may not be the verses’ traditional understanding.
Amalek was a grandson of Esau, who was the brother of the patriarch Jacob. Amalek’s descendants were called Amalekites, or simply Amalek. The Amalekites lived in southern Canaan and the Sinai peninsula. They attacked the Hebrews following the latter’s exodus from Egypt on their way to Mount Sinai. The attack was on the rear of the Hebrew column. The Amalekites slaughtered the weak, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly – the people one would expect to find there. It was a cowardly thing for the Amalekites to do. So, the Hebrews are told not to forget it and, once settled in the Promised Land, to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”
Some have interpreted these words as a genocidal obligation to wipe out the Amalekites. The classical biblical commentator Ibn Ezra (1091/92 – 1167), for example, comments on the statement “blot out the memory of Amalek,” by first quoting the prophet Samuel’s admonition to Saul before engaging the Amalekites: “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.” (1 Sam. 15:3). Ibn Ezra says that the commandment in Deuteronomy is given in general terms. Its specific terms are given in Samuel. To blot out the memory of Amalek means to kill all of the Amalekites and all of their animals as well.
On the Sabbath before the Jewish holiday of Purim, the Sabbath called Shabbos Zakhor (the Sabbath of Remembering), Amalek’s passage from Deuteronomy is read in the synagogue. On Purim, we celebrate the defeat of Haman, the archenemy of the Jewish people. There is a tradition that Haman was descended from the Amalekites, thus the connection between the Amalekites and Purim.
One would be hard-pressed to find an Amalekite today, a known descendant of the aboriginal people. So the question is, why are we still asked to remember every day what the Amalekites did to us and to blot out their memory? It’s been done already, I should think. It appears that they were finally wiped out by King Hezekiah in the 8th century BCE.
One way to understand it is to say that the Amalekites stand for a type – an enemy of Israel. Israel still has enemies; so, Israel must remember that and deal with their enemies. The following is a photo (cropped) of the World War II memorial “Davidster” by Dick Stins, at the Marktstraat (former Jewish neighborhood), The Hague. The text is in Dutch and Hebrew: “Remember what Amalek did to you…. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25: 17-19). The picture is from Wikimedia Commons.
But I would like to suggest something else. Earlier, I hinted that one way of dealing with the painful memory of an impatient teacher was to be patient when we are teaching. If we take this kernel of an idea and apply it here to Amalek’s situation, what would it mean; what would we do? In today’s world, we find many people in transit, moving from places at war, from areas of famine, oppression, and fear, seeking safety for themselves and their families. These refugees are often sick, hungry, powerless, weary, unable to defend themselves.
One way to blot out the memory of what Amalek did would be to do the opposite: to support, help, feed, and house those in transit, those in need. In doing this, we help blot out the memory of what Amalek did. The original injunction did not call for us to blot out Amalek but rather to “blot out the memory of Amalek.” In my opinion, an excellent way to do that is to act oppositely, to be kind where Amalek was cruel, and to remember this every day of our lives.
All the best,