“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were leaving Egypt” (Deut 25:17). Thus the Torah, at the very end of Ki Tetze, begins its condemnation of the nation that had attacked the Israelites without provocation or cause, but attacked out of pure malice. And, the Torah commands us, when we are settled in the land that God has given us, we are to “wipe out the zekher of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget.” What does the word zekher mean? As it is usually translated, it means memory or remembrance. But, on the face of it, if we do as the Torah commands, and wipe out all remembrance of Amalek, how can we also remember what Amalek did?
Obviously this mitzvah of wiping out the zekher of Amalek does not mean what it appears to be saying. Is the Torah, then, commanding us to kill all Amalekites and utterly eliminate their physical existence? Indeed, Moses’s statement in Exodus 17:16 would be consistent with that interpretation. Also, God’s command to King Saul in his war against Amalek (1 Samuel 15:3) suggests such an interpretation. And yet, that is not quite what the Torah in Ki Tetze tells us to do. The Torah does not tell us to wipe out the nation of Amalek itself, but to wipe out its zekher from under the heavens. Contrast this statement with what the Torah commands regarding a city that has utterly turned to evil (Deut 13:13-19). There, we are told to kill the inhabitants of the city “by the sword” and to burn the city down. Similarly, regarding the enemy Canaanite towns, the Torah declares, “Do not let a soul remain alive” (Deut 20:16). But regarding Amalek, the Torah in Ki Tetze makes no mention of physical destruction. What, then, are we commanded to wipe out?
As always, we must look at the context in which this mitzvah is presented. The commandment regarding Amalek comes at the end of a sidra filled with many apparently unrelated laws, including the treatment of woman captured in war, the treatment of the firstborn son of a less-favored wife, the treatment of beasts of burden, and laws regarding rape, lending money, divorce, and many other precepts. The law immediately preceding the mitzvah to remember Amalek prohibits merchants from having two sets of weights and measures, so that they will not cheat their customers.
The unifying principle running through these mitzvot is that of equity and fairness, to prevent the stronger from taking advantage of or oppressing the weaker. And that is just what Amalek did. As the Torah emphasizes (Deut 25:18), Amalek attacked the Israelites when we were tired, despondent, and spiritually weak. In addition, Amalek was in no way threatened by the Israelite migration. They came from afar to attack us, out of pure malice; and that, above all, makes their attack so despicable.
The Torah’s command at the end of Ki Tetze regarding the nation of Amalek, then, does not tell us to repeat Amalek’s act and send our army to their distant home and wipe them out. Note that this mitzvah is to take effect when we are settled in our land, when we are at peace (see Deut 25:19). Surely there were some Amalekites living in the Negev (see Numbers 13:29), but the home of the Amalekites was far away from the promised land, and they were not counted among the indigenous nations of the land of Canaan enumerated in Deut 7:1. Thus, it is not physical annihilation of Amalek that the Torah commands here, but only the zekher of Amalek.
And now we come to the crux of the matter: the meaning of zekher. The word zekher, which usually denotes remembrance, in the present context perhaps is better translated as “essence.” Malbim points out in his commentary on Exodus 3:15 that zekher may refer to “the appellations by which someone is described according to his actions” – that is, a description of his essential character. In conclusion, then, what the Torah here commands us to wipe out is not the physical existence but rather the essence of Amalek’s character, the spirit of hatred between man and man.
I thank my daughter for giving me the kernel of the idea discussed above.
© Copyright 2009 by Ben Roshgolin. All rights reserved.