Rabbi Gavriel Getz

This Shabbos, we do not only read the weekly portion of Parshah Tetzaveh. We also read Parshah Zachor (Devarim 25, 17-19), which is an important part of our custom to take out and read from two Torah scrolls on the weeks between Rosh Chodesh Adar and Rosh Chodesh Nissan.

The story we remind ourselves of each year, by reading Parshah Zachor, is that of the attack of the Amalekites, who are the descendants of Eliphaz, son of Esau (the patriarch Jacob’s brother and sworn enemy) and his concubine Timna. Amalek was a nation near the land of Canaan. They were the first nation to attack the Jewish people after the Exodus from Egypt, and they are seen as the archenemy of the Jews.

The Torah tells us (Shemos 17) that while the Jews were still at Rephidim, shortly after leaving Egypt, the nation of Amalek launched a vicious surprise attack on them, even though the Jews had no interest in Amalekite territory.

Moses commanded his disciple, Joshua, to take an elite troop of soldiers into battle the next day. Moses himself ascended a nearby mountain to pray for G-d’s salvation.

The Jews defeated Amalek in battle, while Moshe prayed on the top of the mountain for Hashem to save them.

Following the battle, which was won by the Jewish People, G-d commanded Moshe to record the story of Amalek’s treacherous attack for posterity. G‑d promised to completely wipe out the memory of Amalek from the earth. G‑d swore that His name and throne would not be complete until Amalek was destroyed.

As a result of this experience, we were given two positive mitzvos: To recall what Amalek did, and to never forget. These mitzvos are fulfilled through the reading of Parshah Zachor.

Why do we read this parshah of Zachor specifically on Shabbos, in addition to our regular parshah?

The Magen Avraham on Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 60,1) says it is because Shabbos helps us remember by having a set time. He further explains we set up times for things that we were saved from or to remind us of what others have done to us. This reading reminds us that those who do something wrong to the Jewish people will get punished. We chose this Shabbos before Purim specifically as the set time to remember this story because Haman, a descendant of Amalek, tried to kill us and the miraculous events of Purim remind us what happened to him.

However, I saw another reason of what exactly we need to be reminded. The Iyun Tefilla quotes the Medrash Tanchuma which teaches that the reading of the story of Amalek is to remind us that the whole reason why Amalek attacked us was because we were weak in Torah learning. "Rephidim," the name of the locale where the Jews were attacked, literally means weak; we were weak in our study of Torah, and this weakening provided an opening for Amalek to attack us.

I saw another reason for the custom of reading Parshah Zachor, in the Medrash Rabbah (Beshalach, 26, 8). It says there that the reason we read about Amalek's attack is because it came as a direct result of the sin of the golden calf. Since the Jewish People did not recognize Hashem's hand in their lives, He reminded them how much they need Him. The Medrash explains this with a parable about a father who is carrying his young son on his shoulders. The boy sees his father's friend and asks him, "Have you seen my father?" The father then looks up and says to his son, "You are on my shoulders, and yet you ask where am I?! I will put you down and then we will see what the enemy will do to you."

In essence, Hashem was telling the Jewish People, "I carried you on the clouds of glory and yet you worshiped a golden calf and wondered, “Is Hashem with us?" It was then that Hashem allowed the enemy to attack.

It seems that these reasons are contradictory. On the one hand, it has nothing to do with our shortcomings as a nation, rather it is a commemoration of Hashem's salvation. On the other, this story implies that we either did not learn the Torah properly or we did not believe fully in G-d. How are we to understand this important event in our history?

I would like to suggest that all three reasons are in fact one and the same, different sides of the same coin.

Perhaps, Bnei Yisroel did not do anything wrong in creating the golden calf, however, it revealed an unacceptable neglect of their responsibilities. They failed to live up to the expectation that they were to wholly dedicate themselves in the service of Hashem. This is what the Medrash Rabbah means when it says that they forgot their Creator: They were being carried on the shoulders of G-d, so to speak, and all their needs were taken care of. It should have been clear to them who they needed to serve. How did this terrible lack of clarity come to be? It was because they were not studying the Torah properly, and weakness in the study of Torah undermines our entire ability to see G-d and trust in Him fully.

In today's world, as our enemies surround and threaten us, we need this reminder more than ever. The lesson of Parshah Zachor is that our enemies are actually present to help direct us back to the proper path and to allow us to clearly see G-d's providence in our lives. Certainly, they will be judged for their wicked behavior, for Hashem's judgment is perfect. But as Jews we need to be able to see beneath the surface of current events and understand why G-d sends them our way. And the only way to do that properly is to study the Torah, without weakness.

Rabbi Gavriel Goetz is the head of school at Yeshiva High School of Arizona.