Zachor – Amalek and Shabbat at War

How do we live a life of significance and permanence in a world that often feels random and fleeting?

Before we can get to Purim 5776, we must pass through the only Shabbat whose special Torah reading is biblically mandated- Parshat Zachor, the reading of the mitzvah to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Aside from the details of the mitzvah, one big question is why this one mitzvah which appears rather negative is so connected with a Shabbat Torah reading, when other mitzvot are commemorated by calendar dates? Let’s consider:  The sages remind us that both Shabbat and Amalek are framed with the word Zachor: ‘Remember the Sabbath Day.’ And ‘Remember what Amalek did…’

The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks an intriguing question: In reality, the two above directives seem self-contradictory or mutually exclusive, because they are based on opposing premises. The Sabbath principle is based on the premise that the world is sustained by constant input from continual creation. As I like asking young children, ‘What would G-d have to do to make the world disappear?’ Eventually I get them to the one word answer…’Nothing.’

In contrast, the premise of Amalek involves buying in to the idea that the world exists independently of its Creator. Therefore the sages describe the MO of Amalek: “Yodeia Ribono U’mitkaven Limrod Bo”= He knows his Master and intends to rebel against Him. The Rebbe invokes a fascinating parable from the Midrash, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer to resolve the mutual exclusion.
“Israel says to Moshe: ‘Moshe our teacher, one verse says, ‘Remember what Amalek did to you,’ and another verse says ‘Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.’ How can both be fulfilled-this ‘remember’ and that ‘remember?’ Moshe said to them: ‘a cup of fine wine is not like a cup of vinegar, though this is a cup and that is a cup. One is a remembrance to sanctify the Sabbath and the other is a remembrance for punishment…”

The Rebbe asks, ‘what is the difficulty here? Can a person have only one memory at a time? Also, how does the example of the two cups clarify anything? ‘
This was Israel’s objection: how could a person be asked to contain two contradictory propositions at the same time? This is where the example of the two cups explains. Even though one is highly prized and the other is undrinkable, they both come from the same source- grapes that have been made into wine.

Similarly with the two ‘Remembrances’. Amalek rebels against G-d and is opposed to everything sacred. However, by doing so he actually expresses an acknowledgment of the Divine who is Omnipotent and has the ability to create a force that can rebel against Him! Thus though the two ‘Remembers’ may come from the same source, like the wine, they go in two opposite directions as the prime wine differs from the vinegar. So too, the command of Zachor in the case of Shabbat, is to amplify the holiness of the day wherein the Zachor of Amalek is to nullify the actions and premises of the influence of Amalek. As the Torah says explicitly about Amalek…’his hand is upon the throne of G-d’…in other words, his goal is to conceal divinity from our lives.

In a contemporary world, we are flooded with the saying of ‘never again’ with regard to the Holocaust in particular and recent atrocities in general. But we are also called upon with practically every Jewish holiday to recall a historical occasion of Divine intervention in a way that pulled open the curtains of natural events. These special times brought a flood of beyond the ordinary revelation from heaven to earth, in contrast to Amalek’s cloud of concealment. Let’s think about this. Our lives are full of ups and downs, positive and negative experiences. How can our current process of re-collection help us maximize our present existence? Enter these two extremes of Zachor- the Zachor of Amalek which turns down the channel of disturbance, doubt, and coldness, and the Zachor of Shabbat which turns up the channel of harmony, faith, and passionate involvement.

In addition, as I wrote in my previous article, we have another key word connected with Shabbat-the term SHAMOR, with its multiple meanings of guard, keep, preserve, wait, and anticipate. ’ If you remember, both SHAMOR and ZACHOR express the major variant in the two sets of Ten Commandments. The first set, later broken, had the word ZACHOR in it, and the latter tablets, SHAMOR. However the Talmud tells us that both terms, SHAMOR V’ZACHOR, were spoken ‘b’dibur Echad,’ –with one utterance, just as we say in the Friday night prayers.

There are many implications of this pair of phrases, and in the reverse order in the prayer from the two sets of tablets. One is simply the halachic principle that Shamor refers to negative commandments and Zachor to positive ones. On Friday nights, the Shamor aspect dominates, which is, perhaps, why the famous song, Lecha Dodi, reverses the order of Shabbat in the first and second tablets, and puts Shamor first. We are jumping into Shabbat from the weekday and the contrast between work and rest is most dramatic. Also in a practical way, Shamor represents the negative mitzvot of Shabbat, those mitzvot that help us clear a space and make an opening for holiness to flow in. Then Zachor would be more related to the daytime where we have already engaged in positive acts of sanctification.

Another insightful comparison of the two terms was brought out by the brilliant Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, o.b.m. He juxtaposed the two expressions as a male-female complement. Zachor is the root of the word for male, and focused on the past. Shamor, which means both guard and anticipate, is more closely related to the female, and the future, as in the word for female, nekeiva, meaning opening…to something new. Shabbat creates the link between past and future, and thrusts us into an Eden like state of infinity, beyond a linear time/space polarized context.

Therefore, the dual aspects of Shabbat are the prime antidotes to Amalek. Shabbat is like the eternal now, the state of being as opposed to doing, where we savor the highest moments of the past, and the infinite potential of the future.  Thus, SHAMOR V’ZACHOR are not just directives: they are a GPS system to guide us to our highest purpose. They are a combined unit of the trust implied by Shamor, in stepping back from the weekday need to continually accomplish, or the passionate involvement in future planning implied by Zachor.

The Talmud in Shabbat provides us with a striking visual of this dynamic: “Taking a long stride diminishes one five-hundredth of a person’s eyesight. It can be restored at the time of Kiddush of Friday night.” The Maharal of Prague points out that the space of this world is five hundred parasangs squared. Thus a long stride represents being too enmeshed in this world. The cure is the Kiddush on Friday night, where, just as the cup is raised, we raise ourselves beyond the gravitational pull of materiality. In fact there is a Hassidic custom when making Kiddush to gaze at the Shabbat candles and to pull the light into the wine of Kiddush, as if to draw the spiritual into the physical- to break through the barrier attempted by Amalek.

The significance of the twin terms of ‘guard and remember’ are thereby reflected in the twin Shabbat lights. They remind us to focus on a consecrated life of meaning and purpose, of just being and appreciating G-d and how we are gifted by Presence. In short, the perfect antidote to the ‘black hole’ of Amalek is indeed the perfect couple of SHAMOR V’ZACHOR of each holy Shabbat.

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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