Parashat Zakhor: Carry On My Wayward Son

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Gedwiser

What are we remembering with parashat zakhor? Unlike so many of the questions that Deuteronomy 25:17-19 raises, this one seems to have a straightforward answer:  we remember “what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt.” Yet for one midrash, the answer was not so obvious.

We begin with a family of midrashim that share a common denominator of Israel as a wayward child, and Amalek as its punishment. One better-known permutation explains the juxtaposition between Exodus 17:7 (Israel wondered, “Is God in our midst or not?”) and 17:7 (“Amalek came”), distilled by Rashi to Exodus 17:8:

משל לאדם שהרכיב בנו על כתפו ויצא לדרך, היה אותו הבן רואה חפץ ואומר, אבא טול חפץ זה ותן לי, והוא נותן לו, וכן שניה וכן שלישית, פגעו באדם אחד, אמר לו אותו הבן ראית את אבא. אמר לו אביו אינך יודע היכן אני, השליכו מעליו ובא הכלב ונשכו

An analogy to a person who put his child on his shoulder and went on a journey. The son would see an object and say “Abba, pick up that thing and give it to me.” And he gave it to him, and so a second and third. They met a certain man. That son asked him: “Have you seen my father?” His father said to him, “You don’t know where I am?!” He cast him down off of him and a dog came and bit him.

Israel is the ungrateful child and God is the angry parent who decides to teach that child a lesson by withdrawing his protection. Amalek is the biting dog, ever ready to attack if God puts Israel down. This version of the midrash grows out of the text in Exodus and does not refer to parashat zakhor in Deuteronomy. (See Midrash Tanhuma (Buber ed.), Yitro 4; see also Shmot Rabbah 26:2.)

A similar midrash appears in Pesikta de-Rav Kahanah (Zakhor, 3) with a twist: at the end, God does not put the child down with a rhetorical question, but with an explicit lesson:

אמר להם הקבה הרהרתם עלי, חייכם שאני מודיע לכם, הרי הכלב ונשך אתכם. ואי זה, זה עמלק שנאויבא עמלק (שם /שמות/ ח), לכך נאמזכור (דברים כה: יז).

God said to them: you doubted Me?  By your life I will inform you. Behold a dog will bite you. And which is that? It is Amalek, as it says “Amalek came” (Ex. 17:8). Therefore it says, “remember” (Deut. 25:17). (emphasis added).

Withdrawing God’s protection is supposed to answer the Israelites’ question “Is God in our midst or not,” presumably in the affirmative.[1] Most interestingly, this version of the midrash connects the lesson learned to the commandment of memory, suggesting that we are to remember not only the fact of Amalek’s attack, but its purpose. If Jews ever veer toward ungratefulness for the benefits of God’s world, remembering Amalek serves as a cautionary tale, and perhaps implicit threat, about what happens if they permit doubt to overtake them.

Another related midrash from the Tanhuma (this time on Deuteronomy (Ki Tetse, 9), not Exodus), takes the same idea one step further:

מלהד למלך שהיה לו כרם והקיפו גדר והושיב בו המלך כלב נשכן אמר המלך כל מי שיבא ויפרוץ את הגדר ישכנו הכלב, לימים בא בנו של מלך פרץ את הגדר נשכו הכלב, כל זמן שהיה המלך מבקש להזכיר חטא של בנו שפרץ הגדר אומר לו זכור אתה היאך נשכך הכלב, כך כל זמן שהקבה מבקש להזכיר חטאן של ישראל שחטאו ברפידים שנא‘ (שמות יז) היש הבקרבנו, אמר להם זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק

What is the analogy? A king who had a vineyard, and he surrounded it with a fence and put a guard dog inside. The king said, anyone who comes and breeches the gate, the dog will bite him. In some time the son of the king came and breached the gate and the dog bit him. Every time the king wished to recall his son’s sin of breaching the gate he says to him, “recall how the dog bit you.” So every time that God wishes to recall the sin of Israel who sinned at Refidim, as it is said “Is God in our midst [or not]? He said to them, “Remember that which Amalek did to you.”

This midrash casts remembering Amalek as more than a reminder of the consequences of sin; the thing we are supposed to remember is not just Israel’s punishment, but the sin itself. “Remember Amalek” is God’s roundabout way of saying “remember when you breached the gate?” Though most people assume that the purpose of remembering Amalek is to carry out the next commandment in the Torah, erasing them, this midrash would seem to divorce the two.  We remember Amalek to remember our own sin.  The connection to anti-Amalek violence becomes unclear, and the focus of shabbat zakhor shifts radically from nursing a sense of victimhood to one of regret and repentance.

In addition to this unexpected shift in focus, the Tanhuma also at least hints at an even more radical suggestion. If “remember Amalek” means “remember yourselves,” then, grammatically, we are “Amalek” for the purposes of that sentence. If so, we may wonder whether we are Amalek in a deeper sense as well. Recall, after all, that Amalek’s ancestor and ours were twins.[2]

This is fraught territory. Does the idea of “Amalek is us” address the moral quandaries in the passage or exacerbate them? At the very least, it could be a worthwhile experiment to turn our memories inward this shabbat, rather than toward external enemies. And, perhaps, shaking up our us/them categories on a shabbat when Purim begins in just a few hours will lead us to new understandings of the difference (or lack thereof) between ארור המן (cursed is Haman) and ברוך מרדכי (blessed is Mordecai).



[1] Exactly how being attacked is supposed to convince Israel that God is in their midst is unclear. Perhaps the lesson works through some combination of demonstrating, by contrast, the protection they previously enjoyed, and requiring faith to win the battle. Alternatively, perhaps God’s חייכם שאני מודיע לכם is more of a threat, along the lines of “I’ll show you” – that is, show you what happens when God is really not in your midst. This role of Amalek would also dovetail with the role of Amalek in the story of the ma’apilim, Numbers 14:42-45.

[2] See generally the chapter on Amalek in R. David Silber’s recent work on Megillat Esther, עם לעת כזאת.


Miriam Gedwiser (SBM 2002) is on the faculty of Drisha and is a nonpracticing attorney.



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