Tetzaveh 5778

D'var Torah | Exodus

Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, the grandson of RaShI, notes the contrast between the previous portion (in which God tells Moses to speak to the people, encouraging them to make a contribution), and this week’s portion (in which God tells Moses to order Aaron and his sons to bring only pure olive oil for the candelabrum). The former, he explains, was a singular request while the latter is an eternal command. Similarly, on Shabbat Zakhor – the Sabbath that immediately precedes the celebration of Purim – we are eternally commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek, to never forget the barbaric attack against our ancestors shortly after the Exodus.


Herein lies a paradox. On the one hand we are commanded to eradicate all traces of Amalek so that noting remains and thereby leaving nothing to recall. Yet on the other hand, we are simultaneously commanded never to forget, thereby requiring that some trace – albeit an historical reflection – of Amalek still remain. Worse still is that there is no mention of the Amalekites in any ancient record except the Torah! Were we not to remember Amalek, no one else would!


A possible escape from this paradox is to suggest that what we remember is not what we are commanded to blot out. What we are commanded to remember is not the Amalekites’ attack, but Israelite – and therefore our own – vulnerability. The Midrsah Tanhuma (Ki Tetze) emphasizes that the real damage done by the Amalekites was to destroy the aura of invincibility that infused our ancestors in the aftermath of the Exodus. Nations cowered from the tale of the defeat of Pharaoh and his minions. Amalek, however, showed that Israel was not invulnerable.


Therefore, we are commanded to remember our vulnerability and be ever vigilant so that no external force will harm us again and our internal defenses are strengthened through the exercise of our spiritual muscles. Thus two commands operate in tandem. We are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek. And we are commanded to guard against complacency. Indeed, the latter danger is still with us though the Amalekites themselves are long gone. Politically, socially, economically – Jews seem to be living in another Golden Age. But the annual commemoration of Shabbat Zakhor reminds us that the successes we enjoy may be ephemeral unless we are on our guard. Accordingly, the task before the Jewish community is to strengthen and deepen our religious commitments while at the same time keeping up an eternal vigilance.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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