But the Exodus is not the only story we are enjoinedto remember. At the end of this week's portion, weread a passage also recited on the Shabbat before Purim. This time, we are called upon to remember the horrificbehavior of the Amalekites:
"Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, afteryou left Egypt--how, not fearing God, he surprisedyou on the march, when you were famished and weary,and cut down all the stragglers in your rear"(Deuteronomy 25: 17-18).
Here, too, memory has a consequence, this one ostensiblymuch different in tone from the mandate to love thestranger:
"Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safetyfrom all your enemies around you, in the land that theLord your God is giving you a hereditary portion, youshall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" (Deuteronomy 25: 19).
In the Jewish imagination, Amalek is the quintessenceof evil, and if we read these verses carefully, we canbegin to see why. Imagine a people dehumanized andenslaved for literally hundreds of years, a people whohave all but abandoned hope of ever experiencingfreedom and liberation. Finally, after generations ofunmitigated suffering, God frees them, and they taketheir first very tentative steps toward freedom. Andwhat happens? Another nation, utterly devoid ofcompassion, mercilessly attacks.
It is an act of terrifying cruelty to attack a people who have knownonly sorrow and degradation for so long, a peopleexhausted in both body and spirit. But it is an actof unimaginable barbarism to attack precisely thatpart of the vulnerable people that is mostvulnerable--the "stragglers in [the] rear."
The biblical text is exquisitely careful here to makethese two critical points: First, that Amalek attacksIsrael just as Israel first tastes the possibility offreedom; and second, that it attacks the weakest amongan already weak people. This is the ultimate nadir ofhuman behavior: There is no greater sin than attackingthe utterly defenseless. To act in such anegregiously degrading way is to betray, as our textsays, an utter lack of "fear of God."
But if we read closely, we come upon a magnificenttextual ambiguity (which is clear in the Hebrew, butdifficult to capture in translation). In describing thescenario under which Amalek attacks Israel, the texttells us that one of the parties "did not fear God"(velo yerei e-lohim). This phrase is usually (as inthe translation offered above) taken to refer toAmalek: Amalek is undeterred by fear of God, so itallows itself acts of unspeakable savagery. But itcan just as easily be understood to refer to Israel--it is Israel who fails to fear God in our story. How so? If Amalek is able to attack the stragglers inthe rear, then somehow the weak and exhausted havebeen left vulnerable and exposed.
The Jewish people have just experienced the Exodus, the fundamentallesson of which is to love and protect thevulnerable--and here is a segment of the people lefttotally unprotected and exposed to violent danger. Soneither Amalek nor Israel seems to truly fear God:The one because it attacks the weak, the other becauseit fails to protect them.