Rabbi Herschel "Brodie" Aberson

This Shabbat, we not only begin a new book of Torah – Vayikra, Leviticus – but also observe Shabbat Zachor – the Shabbat of Remembering, when we read the commandments regarding Amalek and their crimes against the Israelites.  

I have always held a certain discomfort over the command  blotting out a people, committing genocide, is something that should sit poorly for anyone, and for us as Jews in an especially visceral way. Perhaps once the notion of such a task was primarily aspirational – to annihilate an entire people by sword and spear would require a level of commitment and personal investment far surpassing what a similar act would require today. Still, we as a people must continue to struggle with this obligation when it arises for us every year, and try to find a way to understand the command – to blot out Amalek in a way that we can live with. 

Here is one attempt I have made to do so. 

We need to remember not just Amalek but who Amalek comes from. 

We learn in Genesis 36 the lineage of Esau.  

These are the names of Esau's sons: Eliphaz son of Adah the wife of Esau; Reuel, the son of Esau's wife Basemath. The sons of Eliphaz were Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz. 

Timna, sister of Lotan (aunt to Rachel and Leah, Jacob’s wives) bore Amalek to Eliphaz, Esau’s first born son. 

Esau and Jacob have a contentious history, and the pain between them rests squarely on Jacob’s shoulders as the primary agent in taking the birthright from his older brother. And yet, when Jacob does meet with his twin again, Esau seems willing to move forward as a family. What happened that could lead to such a change in a man who once swore to murder his brother? 

By the time of their reunion, Esau is not the only one to bear the pain of his family’s rejection. We learn the following from Tractate Sanhedrin (99b) in the Talmud: 

“What is the purpose of writing, "And Lotan's sister was Timna?" – Timna was a royal princess, as it is written, "aluf Lotan," and "aluf Timna."  By "aluf", it means uncrowned ruler. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, "I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation." From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have repulsed her. 

Esau may have moved on, but his family carries scars of their own. And so Amalek the man grows up knowing only that his family, centered on Israel/Jacob, are responsible for the pain of two ancestors – Timna and Esau. 

Zachor is phrased in the command form – to remember what happened. Even if it was justified, Amalek still acted brutally and horrifically. It would be folly to forget such brutality was possible, or not to prepare to defend against such an attack in the future. Remembering is a powerful tool to take the lessons of the past and apply them now and in the future.  

But blotting out, here, does not need to be about annihilation of a people. It can be about annihilation of a grudge. I want to read the command of blotting out Amalaek as being about letting go of past harms, about being able to forgive. To blot out Amalek, we must seek to forgive those who have harmed us and seek forgiveness from those we have harmed.  

Forgiveness, though, is not primarily a function of memory but rather of compassion, of mercy. It is an act of moving on, and letting go of unnecessary burdens. It is not forgetting what was done, but rather making sure the past does not blot out the future. The greatest evidence of forgiveness is not ignorance, but of incorporating the trauma and experience of past harm into a new and deeper, more honest relationship with the one who harmed us. Both the victim and the abuser can only forgive and move on with both are able to find a new wholeness for themselves.

So, as we remind ourselves of Amalek’s crimes this Shabbat, may we find the strength to blot out the memory of Amalek by finding a new wholeness, and make the transgressions of the past a lesson in how to move forward with greater compassion and integrity. 

Shabbat Shalom! JN

Rabbi Herschel “Brodie” Aberson is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley.