Monday, May 20, 2019

Shabbat Zachor, Parshat Tetzaveh

The haftarah of Shabbat Zachor connects directly to the special maftir we read on this Shabbat before Purim, a reading that commands Israel to erase the very memory of Amalek due to its unprovoked, dastardly attack against the weak and weary stragglers of the nation. Amalek, of course, was the nation from which Haman originated.

The haftarah selection from Sefer Shmuel A records Israel’s fulfillment of the Torah’s command, carried out by her first king, Shaul. It is interesting to note that the fulfillment comes almost 400 years after the entry of bnai Yisrael into the land. The reason for such a “delay” can be found in the command itself (one we read in the special maftir) that obligates Israel only “B’hani’ach Hashem Elokecha lecha mikol oy’vecha misaviv,” after Hashem has granted you rest from your surrounding enemies. Shaul is commanded to go on this mission after he had organized a standing army from all the tribes. Shaul and that army had subsequently removed the threat of Ammon, overpowered the far-superior forces of Philistia and, as the text testifies, Shaul “fought against all of the surrounding enemies, Moav, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Tzova (Aleppo), and the Philistines,” adding that “wherever (Shaul) turned, he inspired terror.” It was at this time, therefore, when Israel had a modicum of rest from foreign threats that Hashem ordered Shaul to carry out the mitzvah.

But we are rightly puzzled, and even troubled, when we question the morality of punishing a nation for the crime that their ancestors committed some 400 years earlier. And to perhaps better understand Hashem’s command we must ask a second question: Who was Amalek?

From the sources in Tanach, it would appear that this nation was not as others who lived in one land, settled it, cultivated it and developed it. It would appear that they had numerous settlements in the area. We read of their attack of Israel that occurred near Har Sinai (in Refidim); the spies tell us that they were to be found in the Negev area of Eretz Yisrael; Shaul attacks their land situated near the settlement of Chovav, also in the south, and we read of the attack upon the city of Tziklag, part of Philistia. This seems to indicate that the nation of Amalek was made up of scattered settlements, something that explains why, after we read that Shaul wiped out the entire population, we read of further attacks committed by the Amalekites.

Furthermore, we should note that God demanded that Sha’ul destroy every remnant of Amalek (“timcha et zeicher Amalek”) including men, women and cattle, but no mention is made of destroying their fields and trees as Hashem commanded the kings Yehoram and Yehoshafat (through the navi Elisha) to do to Moav (Melachim B 3:19). It is not far-fetched to suggest, therefore, that Amalek’s economy was fueled by random attacks on weaker towns and villages. Hence, their attack upon the stragglers of a then-nomadic Israel as well as their invasion and kidnapping of the women and children in the undefended town of Tziklag.

Amalek was not targeted for destruction due to the sins of past generations, but for the continuation of that policy generation after generation.

And the same is true of Haman, whose wickedness was not in his genes but in his deeds.

The Torah tells us that each person is judged by what he does and not who he is. Each individual must prove his own righteousness and not depend upon his lineage. Likewise, everyone can choose the path he will lead and is not doomed to follow the sinful ways of his past.

It is this reason that the nation of Amalek was punished.

It was this reason that Haman was punished.

And it is this reason that we all must learn to emulate the righteous of our past and improve upon the wayward ways of some who preceded us.

By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler

Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.