The Shabbat before Purim is always known by the name Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Memory. On this Shabbat we read a selection from the book of Deuteronomy instructing us to remember how Amalek ambushed the Israelites when they were leaving Egypt. Hungry, tired, and attacked from behind, the Israelites are commanded to erase the “memory of Amalek from under heaven,” lest they forget the horrible events that befell them in the wilderness. Additionally, we read from a special Haftarah from the book of First Samuel, depicting King Saul’s incomplete conquest over the Amalekites. The prophet Samuel orders Saul to destroy the Amalekites, but Saul spares the life of Agag, the Amalekite king, and is shamed by Samuel and by God.
These respective passages from the Torah and the Haftarah are perplexing. On the surface they appear to indicate that the proper behavior in each circumstance is to attack your enemy before your enemy attacks you. There is no peaceful solution to ambush and war. “Remembrance” does not seem to involve participating in ceremonial ritual with speeches, elegies, and musical accompaniment. Rather, one seems to achieve “remembrance” through acts of war and vengeance, and by “blotting out the memory” of the other side.
It comes as no surprise then that the command to annihilate the Amalekites, and its accompanying story in the prophetic literature, have survived for countless generations. Their stories have become our story too. Too often, in contemporary media coverage of world events, we see that so much attention is given to stories of murder, larceny, abuse, war and other hostilities. But if the command that we are given on Shabbat Zachor is to blot out Amalek’s name from history, perhaps we might accomplish such a goal by endeavoring to blot out all of the evil that Amalek represents in our world. There needs to be “remembrance” for other reasons, more positive reasons too. There are brilliant people and extraordinary moments that we celebrate and remember, people who bring love, goodness, and peace into our world, every hour of every day. When we celebrate the festival of Purim every year we acknowledge the heroic acts of Queen Esther, and we remember how tirelessly she worked to save the Jewish people. On Purim, we are instructed to stop and to listen, to hear the words of the Megillah, to reflect on the ancient story of our people, and to celebrate the miracles of the Purim story. We are commanded to engage in a Purim seudah, a special meal, where we join together with family and friends. We are obligated to give mishloach manot, offering gifts to those in our community who are in need.
All of these sacred duties represent positive commandments of our tradition, activities in which we both remember the story of Purim, and act to do something positive with our observance of the festival.
Thus, Shabbat Zachor acts as a brilliant paradox. The readings from sacred literature teach us to “remember” heinous wartime actions, but hopefully, by remembering, we know that we have other options, and we recognize that we will not have to resort to the actions of our ancestors. This Shabbat, as we remember Amalek, and we celebrate Purim, we recognize our challenge is to move beyond war, to commemorate, to remember, and to do a positive and loving act in our world, to move our contemporary reality closer to lasting peace.