Shabbos Zachor holds a special place in my heart (especially when it falls out of Parshas Tetzaveh). No, I do not harbor a particularly strong internal love for remembering to destroy the memory of Amalek, but because my Bar Mitzvah was on Shabbos Zachor. The Halachic aspects of Amalek are interesting, to say the least. Rambam writes (in Hilchos Malachim and Sefer HaMitzvos) that we are commanded to erase the memory of Amalek from the face of the earth. Yet, the pasuk in the Torah from which this special parsha derives its name (Devarim 25 begins “Zachor es asher asa lecha Amalek.” Literally: “Remember what Amalek did to you!” The dichotomy between remembering what they did and blotting out all memory of this nation is peculiar. The Sifri comments that this message is twofold, based on the verse in Devarim. The first message, “Zachor”, pertains to remembering verbally, to speak about the horrible nature in which Amalek cruelly attacked Bnai Yisrael as they left Egypt, tired and weary. The second message comes from the last two words of the Maftir “Lo Tishkach” that we are commanded to not forget. This, according to the Sifri, means that we are to harbor this hatred for this nefarious nation in our hearts. Our disdain for Amalek is to continue to fester internally until they are no longer. While we don’t practice this commandment with gusto today, even the mere notion that we are to behave in such a manner proves how just how serious this commandment is. The Jewish people are not a vengeful, bloodthirsty nation. We are commanded against hating someone in our heart. We are told to be like the pupils of Aharon HaKohen, to love peace and to pursue it. Just a few mitzvot later in Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos discusses the commandment to try and reach a peace agreement before going to war! Yet, when it comes to Amalek, their deeds were too beyond the pale to simply ignore. It’s a puzzling mitzvah, but one we were commanded to do.
We see what happens when we do not take this decree to heart to the utmost, in the Haftorah for Shabbos Zachor. Chapter 15 of Shmuel Alef tells the story of Shaul HaMelech being commanded by Hashem to destroy Amalek. His mission was extensive and clear (15:3) “…You shall not have pity on him (Amalek): and you shall slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” Although generally Bnai Yisrael are a merciful group, in the battle against Amalek, there were to be no survivors. Through the efforts of Shaul and the Keinim, this Divine battle took place. Amalek had been decimated, yet they had not been completely destroyed as per the word of Hashem. Furthermore, the reason that this did not occur was not due to military shortcomings or inabilities. The text continues (15:9) “And Saul and the people had pity on Agag, and on the best of the sheep and the cattle, and the fatlings, and on the fattened sheep, and on all that was good; and they did not want to destroy them; but everything which was vile and feeble, that they utterly destroyed.” Shaul told Shmuel HaNavi excitedly that he fulfilled the word of God and vanquished their dreaded foe. Shmuel, after hearing from Hashem that He regretted appointing Shaul as king for not listening to Him, confusedly asked him why it was that he heard the sound of sheep. Shaul responded that he kept the finest animals alive in order to use as korbanos for Hashem. The back and forth continues, as Shmuel asked Shaul why he didn’t listen to Hashem’s word, and Shaul retorted that he did listen and killed them all, save the choicest of the animals and King Agag, ruler of Amalek. Shmuel drives his message home and asks Shaul: Do you think that the Lord takes more delight in sacrifices that He does in those who listen to His voice? Shaul finally realized that he had sinned, despite his best efforts and wishes. Agag and the animals thus met their demise as well. But before they did, Agag escaped from where he had been held captive and impregnated a woman. She conceived, and their ultimate descendant was none other than Haman himself.
Had Shaul killed Agag as he was commanded to do, the Purim story would never have happened. One could argue that had those events not happened, the Jewish people would’ve never been able to rededicate themselves to the Torah, an event that was exhibited with more passion and fervor after Purim than it was at Mt. Sinai. Nevertheless, if we apply Shmuel’s words to Shaul in this case, it’s evident that the more vital deed was to listen to the word of God in the first place. If we are given a mitzvah that seems, on the surface, to be so incongruent to the ways in which we are to live our lives, one is liable to do away with it entirely. Conversely, I believe that that’s precisely the reason we’re commanded so strongly about following this mitzvah. Although today we are not roaming the streets seeking to bludgeon the descendants of Amalek, Zachor, velo tishkach. We must remember what happened, and never forget about it.