This week’s additional Torah reading is known by its heading Zachor: the communal remembrance of how the tribe of Amalek pursued our ancestors out of Egypt, chasing after the weakest stragglers and mugging them for their possessions. Preying on the most vulnerable, the tribe, a descendant of Esau, were merciless to those most loyal to them.
David, before he became king of Israel, came across a slave of the Amalekites who was left to die in the desert because he had fallen ill and was weak. He tended to him and was appalled at the cruelty of his masters, who had captured David’s entire household on a raid against the Philistine of Ziklag.
In ancient Greece, Sparta practised auto-euthanasia. In Roman law, the lives of slaves were worthless. The Torah’s clarion call against Amalek and the cheapening of human life is considered by our rabbinic tradition to be the most important reading in the Hebrew calendar.
The Torah points out the people at this time were not God-fearing. It does not say why, but perhaps the very state of leaving stragglers unguarded and unsupported was a sign of lack of righteousness. The Torah then commands us to eradicate all memory of Amalek. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev comments the Amalekite refers not only to the descendants of Esau, but also to negativity in the heart of every person.
Zachor’s message is that one should eradicate that negativity from within one’s heart, as this is what leads to sin.
υ Ariel Abel is rabbi of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation