Along with the portion of Vayikra, we also read Parshat Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), in which the Torah exhorts us to remember our duty to destroy the nation of Amalek. Halaka--Jewish law--demands that all adult Jews hear these verses read aloud on this Shabbat. Who is this nation of Amalek? What have they done wrong, and why is it so important to annihilate them?
The first time that we encounter Amalek is in Exodus 17:8-16. The Israelites have recently left Egypt, and before they arrive at Mount Sinai they are attacked by the people of Amalek at a place called Refidim. A battle ensues, and the Israelites, led by Joshua, prevail. God promises to destroy Amalek eventually. From this account, it is not clear why Amalek is singled out as an eternal enemy. In the course of time, many other nations attack the Jews, but we do not vehemently renew the feud against them each year.
The verses that we read from Deuteronomy this Shabbat help elucidate the matter. We are told, "Remember what Amalek did to you on the journey as you left Egypt. That they came upon you on the journey and attacked the weak ones at the rear and you were tired and weary and not fearing God" (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). Amalek was the first nation to attack the Israelites after they left Egypt. The Midrash Tanchuma blames Amalek for shattering the aura of invincibility that surrounded the Israelites after the miraculous Exodus. Rav Saadiah Gaon explains that Amalek was particularly nefarious because they preyed on the weak and helpless stragglers who could not keep up with everyone else.
Parshat Zachor, with its injunction to remember and destroy Amalek, is always read on the Shabbat before Purim. Right before we recall the insidious deeds of Haman the Amalekite, we remember the earlier misdeeds of his nation. In today's world, though, the call to destroy Amalek has lost its original meaning. There is no longer an identifiable nation of Amalek, and as we read Parshat Zachor on Shabbat, we are not planning any military campaigns. When we remember our duty to destroy Amalek, we rededicate ourselves to fighting the tendency to attack those who cannot protect themselves. We renew our pledge to protect the weak and defend the vulnerable. It is no coincidence that one of the central obligations of Purim is giving gifts to the poor. Our triumph over Amalek is made manifest in our eradicating the values that Amalek represents. When we reach out to the vulnerable in our communities, we are indeed both remembering and destroying Amalek.
This struggle to understand traditional texts in a modern context extends to most of the book of Leviticus as well. In a time when there is no Temple, laborious details of animal sacrifices seem archaic and burdensome. One possible understanding of the sacrifices is that they represent the ideal of giving the best of one's self and possessions to God. It is not just that the animals and fruits donated had to be of the highest quality; the level of painstaking precision involved in Temple ritual represents a consecration in its own right. As we read through the book of Leviticus, we can contemplate what it means to present an offering before God, and in our effort to wrest meaning from the text, we will perhaps be bringing a sacrifice of our own.