Erasing and rewriting Amalek’s name
In Jewish tradition a reference to Amalek is a reminder in every generation of all who have ever sought to rise and destroy our people. As Moses implores, in this week’s Torah portion Ki Teitzei, we are to remember and never to forget how Amalek came from behind to cut down the least, the last, the most vulnerable among us. And we are also told to blot out Amalek’s name from our memory.
Now, this is curious. After all, how is one to remember and not forget what Amalek did and, at the same time, to blot out the very memory we are enjoined to retain?
Perhaps an answer to this paradox may be discerned within the 39 categories of work forbidden by the Rabbis to be performed on Shabbat. Constructive acts of work, we are told, are reminiscent of God’s activity in creating the world (work from which God rested on the seventh day), and, thus, one traditionally eschews from engaging in creative work on Shabbat. Work that is not creative in nature, however, is another matter entirely.
Consider, then, that one of the various types of work proscribed on Shabbat is erasing; there are, however, two types of erasure. When we erase for the express purpose of blotting something out, the Rabbis teach, this is a destructive act. But when we erase with the intent to rewrite or, more accurately, to improve upon that which we have removed, this activity is considered constructive in nature.
Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine and one of the most celebrated and influential rabbis of the last century, taught that the distinction between these two types of destructive and constructive erasing helps to resolve the paradox as to how we may blot out Amalek’s memory while never forgetting it at the same time.
After all, Rav Kook explained, the command to erase Amalek from our memories is not so we will completely forget and never recall the evil that has befallen us; that would be a purely destructive act. Rather we are to erase Amalek’s name and deeds with the express intention of rewriting and, thus, re-remembering for future generations that which we must never allow to happen again in our own.
It is not sufficient to blot out the memory of Amalek. Our erasing his name must, instead, be in service of a larger productive purpose. As the Midrash explains: Where Amalek’s goal was to erase the nation that bears God’s Name from the face of the earth, we are charged to replace Amalek’s name — not with nothing, but with acts of holiness that proclaim the centrality of the Divine in the world, most especially to the least, the last and the most vulnerable among us.
Or, if you prefer, we fulfill the mitzvah both to blot out and to remember Amalek when we erase in order to rewrite.
Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno is the spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.