You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt,
how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God.
It will be, when the Lord your God grants you respite from all your enemies around in the land which the Lord, your God, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget! — Dvarim 25:17-19
I have heard this read in the synagogue numerous times, and taken part in discussions of the meaning of this mitzvah (commandment). But I did not truly understand it until Simchat Torah of this year.
A mitzvah can always be understood in relation to actions. The well-known injunction to “love thy neighbor” in Lev. 18:19 appears in context as “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” It does not require me to have a warm feeling toward the residents of the apartment next to mine. Rather, it orders me to avoid feuding with other Jews (not always an easy thing).
The commandment to remember Amalek does not mean to produce in myself a certain state of mind, similar to what I aspire to when my wife tells me to remember to bring home a carton of milk. That would be impossible anyway, because I wasn’t there in the desert when Amalek first did its dirty deeds. How can I remember what I didn’t experience? So what does “remember” mean here?
What I realized on Simchat Torah was that it means that we must not only keep in mind the evil that Amalek intends, but we must act on that awareness. It means that we must not let our guard down, we must take positive actions to prepare for Amalek’s viciousness. Only after we have achieved our independence in the land of Israel and fully defeated all of our enemies, can we stand down from our condition of high alert. Only when Amalek is finally obliterated will it be safe to obliterate our memory of it.
This has actually been the human condition for ages, and remains the condition of most of the world’s population today. If a tribe forgets that it has enemies, it will soon be swallowed up. But recently, several generations have grown up in North America and Western Europe whose enemies have been kept far enough away from them that they’ve come to believe that it’s normal to live in peace. It is actually exceptional. I think that shortly they may find out that this isn’t true.
For Jews, the wolf of Amalek is always at the door. This is certainly true in Eretz Yisrael, where Amalek has been battering at us for at least the last 100 years. But since 1967, many Israeli Jews have lost the existential anxiety that gripped the generation of 1948. The Yom Kippur War was a reminder of it, but the fact that we recovered from the initial defeat and won a clear-cut military victory (though it was taken from us diplomatically) and that our enemies didn’t penetrate our home front, soon erased the fear of the first days of the war. There were other warnings, but the desire to live as though we were one of the large Western democracies made us suppress the precarious reality of the Middle East in which we live.
So we reduced the size of our ground army, and relaxed many of the procedures that were, it turns out, essential to protecting our people. We have become dependent: on America, on technology, on our Air Force. Officers assumed that we were so strong that nobody would challenge us, so it was safe for them to fudge a little on their reports to higher-ups. What could happen? Our General Staff decided that technology could replace boots on the ground; they advocated for a “digital battlefield” on which every soldier would be tied into sophisticated information systems that would provide real-time intelligence and command, blah blah blah. Their reports all said that goals were achieved. A whole paper structure was built that did not reflect reality. The map was not the territory. “We’ve never been stronger,” said the top generals, until Hamas revealed their nakedness on October 7.
Our leaders should have known the intentions of our enemies. All they had to do was listen to what the spokespeople of Hamas, Hezbollah, the PLO, and Iran said in public. But perhaps because they themselves were so easily bought, they held our enemies in contempt. They assumed that quiet could be purchased with American dollars to the PLO and Qatari cash for Hamas. But it turns out, as anyone who has studied the Middle East even a little knows, that money was only a means to an end. They were happy to take it and build fancy villas for themselves, but they also dug tunnels and manufactured rockets. And they never lost their aspiration to once and for all kill and drive out the Jews from what they claim as their land.
The generals and the politicians forgot that we are not a large western democracy, but rather a small country in the Middle East. They forgot that our enemies are not stupid. They forgot that honor and deterrence go together. They forgot that the more complicated a system, the more weak points it has, and that technology can fail. They forgot that Maginot Lines never work. They forgot that only ground forces can hold territory.
Most importantly, they forgot how much our enemies hate us and how this motivates them. They forgot Amalek.