Parashat Zachor – Communal Responsibility

Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt, that they happened upon you on the way, and struck those at the rear and the weak, when you were faint and exhauseted, and they did not fear God.  It shall be when the Lord your God gives you rest from the enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God has given you as an inheritance to possess, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under heaven – you shall not forget! (Devarim 25:17-19)

The commandment to ‘wipe out the memory of Amalek’ raises many questions.  How could God have given a genocidal Mitzvah?  Assuming that the people involved were all evil, what did their offsrping do to deserve the same punishment?

There are many different approaches to dealing with a Mitzvah that appears to be unethical.  As a Modern Orthodox Jew, the answer can not be that this line is not from God.  One could choose to view this Mitzvah within the context of the Ancient Near East and its rules of war.  None the less, my expectations are higher when reading God’s rules of war.

Perhaps we can look at this issue from another angle.  One has to wonder why Bnei Yisrael left people at the rear who were weak and tired.  Is it not the responsibility of the community to insure the safety of those people who are at the greatest risk?  Would it not have been wise to place some military protection at the rear of the camp? (See http://www.tanach.org/special/zachor/bshs2.htm for an analysis of the pesukim that raises similar questions.)

The fact that Amalek was able to attack in such a pernicious fashion was exacerbated by the Jewish People’s lack of concern for those most in need. What a sad statement about Bnei Yisrael in the desert. 

Unfortunately we live in a community that is all too similar.  People with challenges, emotional, psychological or physical, are made to feel at the “back of the camp.”  People who suffer from depression, alchoholism and so many other diseases are made to feel that the Jewish Community, especially the Orthodox community, is not for them.

What happens to those Jews who feel this way?  Their lonliness drives them away from yiddishkeit and sometimes drives them to much worse than that.  If only we were able to help all Jews feel as a “part of the camp” or the family.  If only…

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3 Responses to Parashat Zachor – Communal Responsibility

  1. Harley says:

    I appreciate your comments about recognizing and integrating those Jews with emotional/psychological/physical challenges, and I thought your question about why Bnei Yisrael allowed these individuals to languish at the rear of the camp was really interesting (any theories here?). However, what about your first question regarding the genocidal Mitzvah? If as an Orthodox Jew you can’t rationalize it as not truly being from God, how do you understand this commandment? And more generally, how do you deal with the idea of credit and punishment being alloted to future generations due to the conduct of their ancestores? It seems so antithetical to how we approach credit and blame today, i.e. only the individuals involved deserve to be affected by their acts, both good and bad. But there are plenty of references to it in the Torah!

  2. Evenewra says:

    It’s this discussion that makes Megillat Ruth so interesting. The Moabites are frowned upon too because they denied the Jews bread and water. As a result, they are specifically forbidden from converting Judaism. But Ruth was so full of chesed that she became the antithesis of her ancestors. As a result, she, a Moabite, not only was able to convert into Judaism, but she became the grandmother of Moshiach. Part of what I love about Judaism is that it is about transformation… slaves become chosen. So what does this say about Amalek? They can’t change? Makes me think about how it isn’t a mamzer’s fault that he is a mamzer, but he is one nonetheless because his parents “infected” him with it. What’s the deal here? Sometimes you can change. Sometimes you can’t?

  3. Rabbi Jeffrey Fox says:

    I think that Evenewra is moving in the right direction. In fact, people born into Amalek have the ability to convert to Judaism. There is a midrash that teaches us that the decendants of Haman “taught Torah in Bnei Brak.”

    According to Rav Soloveitchik it seems that any nation that seeks to destroy the Jewish People in its entirety can in fact take on the status of Amalek. (Let’s try to bracket the potential political fall out that this might lead to with the election of Hamas.)

    If we assume the Amalek is a category with permiable boundaries – people can convert in and out – then the problem of the future genreations is greatly limited.

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