Parshat Ki Teitzei: Remember Amalek; Don't Forget
Remember Amalek; Don't Forget
This week’s parsha includes the commandment to wipe out the memory of Amalek, the nation who attacked the Israelites just weeks after the Exodus from Egypt. It’s the kind of mitzvah that makes our skin crawl in the 21st century. Why would God command wiping out an entire people? What did they do that was so evil that they deserve to be completely erased from history? And why does the Torah use this cryptic language of memory and forgetting to give this command? Our parsha holds a surprising key for solving the Amalek puzzle, through a completely different mitzvah that touches on themes of memory and erasing. Looking at these two mitzvot together will open up a whole new way of understanding the battle with Amalek, what it meant for the ancient Israelites, and what it may mean for us today. Listen to Ami Silver and Daniel Loewenstein’s exploration of these ideas, and be prepared to never view this story the same way again.
Ami: Hi, Parsha Lab listeners, welcome back. This is Ami Silver, writer at Aleph Beta.
Daniel: And this is Daniel Loewenstein, also a writer at Aleph Beta.
Ami: So before we jump in, I just want to remind you all, if you haven't already, please subscribe to Parshah Lab and rate us five stars. It'll really help get the word out and share Parshah Lab with your friends.
So, Daniel, in this week's parsha, Ki Teitzei, there's a whole slew of different things going on. A lot of different commandments that Moshe is telling the Children of Israel about.
Daniel: Yeah. It's one of those parshiyot that it's really hard to find the unifying theme.
Ami: Right. It feels like a big hodgepodge, a big salad. For starters, we're actually going to jump over the hodgepodge and we're going to begin almost at the end of the parshah, with one particular mitzvah. So I want you to look with me in Deuteronomy Chapter 25, at one of our absolute favorite mitzvot here at Aleph Beta. Daniel, before you even open up, what is Aleph Beta's favorite mitzvah in the Torah?
Daniel: Sorry, you're going to have to give me a clue here, Ami.
Ami: Okay. Well, favorite is maybe the wrong word. What is a mitzvah that Rabbi Fohrman and subsequent writers and thinkers here at Aleph Beta have detected as being a surprising theme that seems to thread itself throughout the Torah's narrative? It has to do with families, it has to do with --
Daniel: Ami, are you talking about yibum?
Ami: I am talking about the mitzvah of yibum. The mitzvah of yibum, after all these stories in the Torah that may be touching on themes of this mitzvah, we actually hear about that commandment here in Parshat Ki Teitzei.
Daniel: For all the listeners out there who may be unfamiliar, yibum refers to -- I think the fancy English term is levirate marriage, which is where a man who passes away without leaving any heirs, his brother can then continue his deceased brother's legacy by marrying the deceased's wife and then having children that we treat as coming from the deceased's lineage. Sort of a way to allow him to continue, even though he didn't have a chance to pass on his legacy in his own lifetime.
Ami: Exactly. So Daniel, if you don't mind, please read for us in Deuteronomy Chapter 25, Verse 5.
Daniel: All right. "Ki yeshvu achim yachdav," so if brothers dwell together, "u'meit echad meihem u'ven ein lo," and one of them passes away and does not have a son. "Lo tihiyeh eishet hameit hachutzah l'ish zar," so the wife of the deceased shouldn't go out and marry a stranger. "Yivamah yavo aleha," so her yavam, meaning her husband's brother -- is there a better way to translate yavam?
Ami: Well, we could revert back to your fancy English term, her levirate husband. But just to sort of put a window on this word, this is a word, yavam, yibum, that doesn't really seem to have other related meanings. So it's a very specific term defined here in our local context.
Ami: So we can call it a yavam, we could call it a levirate, levirate partner.
Daniel: Whatever it is. "Yivamah yavo aleha," so this yavam should be the one who marries her, "u'lekachah lo l'isha v'yibmah," he should take her for a wife and he should perform yibum with her. "V'haya habechor asher teileid," and so then the firstborn of that union, "yakum al shem achiv hameit," he will be established according to the name of the deceased brother, "v'lo yimacheh shemo m'Yisrael," and thus the deceased's name will not be erased from Israel.
Ami: That parshah goes on to explain what happens if, let's say, the brother of the deceased doesn't want to go ahead and marry his widow. But we're going to just focus on the verses we just read here for a moment. Daniel, the last few words you read there give a very succinct explanation of the purpose of this mitzvah.
Daniel: Right. "Lo yimacheh shemo," the idea that this deceased brother is at risk of disappearing without a trace from his nation. It's almost as though he never existed, because he's not leaving anything behind as a legacy.
Ami: Right. His name should not be erased. What do you make of that? What does it mean to have your name erased from your people?
Daniel: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is probably that names means legacy.
Ami: Right. So it seems like on some level, the Torah deems it very important that people be remembered in the nation, people have some kind of continuity, their name not be forgotten and erased. So I want to look at that word erasure again. "Lo yimacheh shemo m'Yisrael," yimacheh. When you think of a name being erased, someone's memory being erased, is there anything else in the Torah that comes to mind for you? What does that bring up? Any associations?
Daniel: So two things come to mind for me. One of them is the story of the Sotah and the procedure where a woman who has been warned not to be alone with a man who isn't her husband, and she disregards the warning. So we erase God's name in the procedure of testing her to see if she's been faithful or not.
Ami: Right. There is a very literal erasing that happens. There is a document written with certain verses that includes God's name on it. The Torah actually says you dip that in water and that name of God is erased. It's a very dramatic part of that procedure.
Daniel: Yeah. Ami, the other place I'm thinking of is after the Golden Calf, God threatens to wipe out the people and start over with Moses, and then Moses says if that's what you're going to do then "mecheini na m'sifrecha asher katavta," if you're going to try to do that then you have to erase my name from your book.
Ami: So there actually does Moses say his name, or he says erase me?
Daniel: Me. He says "mecheini na".
Ami: So those are two places. There's another example of erasing that actually shows up just a few verses after what we're reading right here. Before we even look at it, Daniel. Macheh, macho, machah.
Daniel: Are you talking about Amalek, perhaps?
Ami: I am talking about the mitzvah of erasing the memory of Amalek.
Daniel: Right. I think the Torah says "macho timcheh", is that right?
Ami: We'll look at this in a moment. There are actually two places where the Torah speaks about erasing Amalek. One of them is here in our parshah, just a few verses after we read about the mitzvah of yibum which tells us, don't erase the name of your brother from your nation. I want to look at those verses with you, Daniel.
So let's hope down to Verse 17. This is the very end of Parshat Ki Teitzei. "Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek," remember, Moses is saying to the people, remember what Amalek did to you; "baderech b'tzeitchem m'Mitzrayim," on your way or as you were journeying out of the land of Egypt. "Asher korcha baderech," they happened upon you on your way "vayizanev becha kol hanecheshalim acharecha," and Amalek caught you by the tail, all of the weak ones behind you. "V'ata ayeif v'yagei'a," and you were tired and weary, you were worn out; "v'lo yarei Elokim." Now, different commentators interpret this differently, who is the subject of these phrases. It either means and you were not fearful of God or they, Amalek, were not fearful of God.
"V'haya b'haniach Hashem Elokecha lecha mikol oyvecha misaviv," when God puts you at rest from all of your enemies around you; "ba'aretz asher Hashem Elokecha notein lecha nachalah l'rishtah," in the land that God is giving you as your inheritance. "Timcheh et zecher Amalek mitachat hashamayim lo tishkach."
Daniel: There it is.
Ami: You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens. Do not forget. So it's curious to me that this work machah (erase) shows up twice in just a matter of verses that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Right, one is the mitzvah of yibum, I'm trying to protect my brother's memory, his legacy; do not allow your brother's name to be erased from your people. The other is actually a mitzvah to cause somebody else's memory to be erased. Actually, an entire nation's memory to be erased.
Daniel: Right. I'm not sure why there would be a specific connection between Amalek, let's say, and yibum, but there definitely does seem to be some sort of a focus on legacy. There's a lot here not just about the connection between the word "lo yimacheh" and "timcheh", but also a lot of the word choice here is about timcheh et zecher Amalek, zachor lo tishkach, almost somehow we should eliminate the memory of Amalek, which feels like it has a lot to do with legacy and with carrying on a name. And yet at the same time, it's almost like our legacy to not forget to destroy their legacy. Right, because we have to make sure that their zecher is gone, but we have to remember and not forget to do that.
Ami: Right. In short, remember to not forget to erase their memory. Don't forget. So I want to look at these verses about Amalek a little more closely and the story of Amalek, and see if maybe these two seemingly unrelated things really do share some deeper connections. So Daniel, I want to look with you again at this Amalek narrative. Let's look at who is it that Amalek attacked? Look again at Verse 18 there.
Daniel: Yeah, Ami, when you read it before you mentioned the necheshalim, the stragglers. You also mentioned that the Children of Israel were ayeif v'yagei'a, they were also very weary when they were attacked.
Ami: Right. It's funny, the Torah doesn't just say remember that nation that attacked your nation. It says, remember that nation that attacked the weary, the tired, the ones who were straggling. This word, necheshalim, it's actually pretty strange. That word doesn't show up very much in the Torah. A lot of the commentators actually say that necheshalim might be another form of nechlashim, those who had been made weak by this journey. It's these kind of weak stragglers who can't even keep up with the pack. These are the ones who are being attacked.
Daniel: Oh, I think I see where you're going with this.
Ami: Where do you think you see I'm going, Daniel?
Daniel: Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like Amalek, who are the ones that we are commanded to erase, they are people who attack the vulnerable. Yibum is all about making sure that the vulnerable are not the ones who are erased.
Ami: Exactly. It's actually about upholding the potentially forgotten legacy of the most vulnerable. Right, this is something Rabbi Fohrman actually says very powerfully in many of his videos dealing with yibum. Who's the absolute most vulnerable person in the world? Someone who's dead. The deceased brother who didn't have any children, there is nothing he can do, nothing possible for him to carry on his legacy. He's lost. It's all up to you to uphold his legacy. Here comes Amalek, and they're specifically attacking the vulnerable ones, the ones who don't really seem to have any strength to fight back, the ones who can't even keep up with everybody else, maybe even to be protected by the pack.
Daniel: Right. Even that word, vayizanev, they attacked you from the rear. That classic image of the backstabber, the guy who doesn't want a fair fight.
Ami: Right. So the beginnings of my theory here are that the link between yibum and Amalek and this macho timcheh, this erasing one nation and making sure not to erase the other, it's almost like Amalek are the anti-yibum people. Rather than being told to uphold their memory, the Torah is telling us to erase their memory. Exactly the opposite of what we do in a case of yibum.
Daniel: Right. It feels like a middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. There's a principle suggested by the Sages that most of the rewards and punishments that are meted out in the Torah are actually in some way measure for measure. If you do something, then the reward you get or the punishment you get will fit the crime or fit the good deed. The idea here would be that if Amalek is trying to attack the people who are vulnerable and potentially threaten their memory and erase their memory and ability to continue to exist, so measure for measure they are the ones who then in turn are forced to be erased and to stop existing.
Ami: Daniel, to kind of make this point a little sharper, I actually want to look with you at the other place in the Torah where the battle with Amalek shows up, the place where the story actually takes place in the book of Exodus. I think we see here surprising echoes of this same kind of yibum, anti-yibum battle going on behind the scenes.
So I want to look with you, Daniel, at the verses here and pay attention to what exactly is going on in this battle. What is the primary weapon of the Children of Israel in their battle against Amalek? We're in Exodus 17, Verse 8. I'm going to kind of paraphrase. Amalek comes along, starts going to battle with Israel. Moses says to Joshua, go send out some soldiers, let them go fight and I'm going to go up on top of the mountain with God's staff in my hand.
Joshua follows his command. He's out on the battlefield and here come Moses, Aaron, and Hur ascending to the top of a mountain. Now before we go even further, Daniel, what's the connection between Moses, Aaron, and Hur? What's significant about these three people specifically?
Daniel: Well, Ami, remind me. Was Hur Miriam's husband?
Ami: So Hur is actually one of those mystery characters in the Torah. He pops up here, we don't really hear about him in many places. But the Sages make a connection between something written in Chronicles -- the Sages actually say that Hur was the son of Miriam and Caleb. That Miriam was married to Caleb, and Hur was their son.
Daniel: Okay. So then these would all be males in the family of Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron.
Ami: Right. So we basically have Moses, his brother Aaron, and Hur, who is I would say maybe the male representative of their sister Miriam. In a sense, the three siblings of this family are all represented in this triad. Interestingly, by the way, at first Moses just said to Joshua, I'm going to go up the mountain. But when it comes time to actually ascend the mountain, he goes up with his brother and his nephew.
Daniel: Okay. Interesting. I see that, in Verse 9 Moses says "Anochi nitzav al rosh hagiv'ah," I will be standing at the top overlooking the battlefield. When he actually goes up, it says "Moshe Aharon v'Chur alu rosh hagiv'ah."
Ami: Actually, there are a few words that you skipped. Moses says, I'm going to go up to the top of the mountain "u'mateh ha'Elokim b'yadi," I'm going to have God's staff in my hand. It almost sounds like Moses is saying, Joshua, you fight down there and I'm going to go up with my staff and that's going to be how I fight. Right, almost this sort of wizard on the mountain with his magic staff, that's going to be Moses' main weapon. But what we actually hear in this verse -- the next verse, 10, is that Moses goes up on top of the giv'ah, this mountaintop, and he has Aaron and Hur with him, his brother and his nephew. We actually don't even hear about a staff. Aaron and Hur, they took the place of this weapon perhaps.
Let's read on and I will show you what I mean here. This is a very well-known scene now. "V'haya ka'asher yarim Moshe yado v'gavar Yisrael," it came to pass that when Moses was raising his hands in the air, that Israel was prospering on the battlefield. "V'ka'asher yaniach yado v'gavar Amalek," when he would rest his hands then Amalek would start to prevail.
Daniel: Interesting. I remember you mentioned something about paying attention to the weapons being used. If you were referring to this, so it seems like in the beginning Moses had planned on wielding his staff and now it seems like he's using his hands.
Ami: That does seem to be what the verses are telling us. Maybe we are supposed to assume the staff is in his hand, but there's no mention of the staff at this point. Now let's keep reading, because we hear more about Moses' hands. "V'yedei Moshe keveidim," his hands start to get heavy. "Vayikchu even vayasimu tachtav vayeisheiv aleha," and they -- here the they being who?
Daniel: Presumably Aaron and Hur.
Ami: Right, presumably that's who's doing this. They take a stone and they put it beneath Moses' hands, "vayeisheiv aleha," and his hand is able to rest on that stone. "V'Aharon v'Chur tamchu b'yadav," so here Moses is resting his arms against the stone, and Aaron and Hur are supporting Moses' hands. "Mizeh echad u'mizeh echad," this one on one side, this one on the other side. "Vayehi Yadav emunah ad bo hashamesh," and his hands were emunah, they were steadfast until sunset.
Now, Moses' hands are the things that are somehow enabling the Children of Israel to prevail on the battlefield. But what is it that's making Moses' hands an effective tool here? Or rather, who is it?
Daniel: Oh my goodness, it's his brothers.
Ami: It's his brothers.
Ami: Moses' hands here, by the way, are they strong hands that Moses is holding up in the air?
Daniel: They are in fact weak hands. They are hands that are threatening to fail and are in need of support. His hands are being supported by his brothers in the fight against Amalek. Whoa.
Ami: Just listen to these words again we saw in Ki Teitzei. Who did Amalek attack? "Hanecheshalim achrecha v'ata ayeif v'yagei'a." Amalek is attacking those weak stragglers and you, you're exhausted and worn out. It really sounds like Moses' hands are weak and exhausted and worn out, too.
Daniel: Then in Verse 13, when they're finally successful in defeating Amalek, the word that's used is "vayachalosh Yehoshua et Amalek."
Ami: Exactly, which translates as Joshua weakens Amalek. The outcome of Moses' hands being supported, Moses' weak, tired hands being supported by his brothers is that Joshua is able to then weaken the nation of Amalek by the sword in battle.
Daniel: So a couple of thoughts occur to me as you say this, Ami. Number one is, I wonder if also there's an illusion to this being the undercurrent of the idea in the final verse of the section, where it mentions that Hashem has an ongoing feud with Amalek "midor dor", right, going from generation to generation. Maybe the mention of continuity of generations is somehow an illusion also to the idea of yibum and the idea of prolonging someone's line across generations and how the fight with Amalek needs to be a generational fight because it's about continuity.
Ami: Right. Isn't that a really strange thing? You would think if somebody, some nation did something terrible, God would want to punish that nation for their action in the moment and that would be it. But God explicitly says here, macho emcheh, I will surely erase or continue to erase the memory of Amalek. This battle between God and Amalek will be from generation to generation. That intergenerational battle. Yes, Daniel, I think it's very much touching on exactly what Amalek is somehow opposing. Amalek is somehow opposing that kind of care, that kind of compassion and taking care of one another that yibum accomplishes.
Daniel: Ami, the other thing that I wanted to say is just simply how powerful that image is of kill them with kindness and the idea that they literally won this fight by having brothers support brothers. That image is just so powerful, that one of the great ways of conquering evil is actually through love. It sounds so cliché but when you read these verses, that really seems to be this very powerful thing that sticks with you, right, that if you look after the people who need support, in that very act in and of itself, through some weird cosmic who-knows-what, that that can turn the tide on battles with terrible forces in the world.
I feel like we don't necessarily see that happen in quite the literal one-to-one correspondence way that it seemed to be happening here. But I wonder if that's something that we should take to heart and realize in terms of the innate power of our actions to take care of people. Ami, I have chills a little bit.
Ami: It really does reframe the whole image, at least in this case, of what this kind of battle is really about. We think of Moses standing there with his arms raised in the sky and that somehow connects the Children of Israel back to God, and God is on their side. But at the core of it, this is about people supporting one another. The word here that's used even is that Aaron and Hur tamchu b'yadav, supported his hands. I don't even remember that word showing up very much in the Torah, Daniel, tamchu. It literally just means to hold up another person.
So Daniel, there's actually one more thing I want to share with you here. The difference in the text between Exodus's account of Amalek and Deuteronomy's account of Amalek. Daniel, who is the one who's going to erase the memory of Amalek in the book of Exodus?
Daniel: I think you pointed out that the language was macho emcheh, which is that I, meaning God, will be the one to erase the memory of Amalek.
Ami: Right and milchamah la'Hashem, God is going to be fighting against Amalek throughout the generations. Now, when we get to Ki Teitzei it's very interesting because in Verse 19 it says "b'haniach Hashem Elokecha lecha mikol oyvecha saviv," God is going to give you rest from all your enemies. No one's going to be attacking you anymore, and you're going to be in the land that God is giving you. Then, "timcheh et zecher Amalek mitachat hashamayim lo tishkach." You, meaning the Children of Israel, shall erase the memory of Amalek.
Daniel: Which is, like you said, so strange because the first half of the verse sounds like there are no enemies left anyway.
Ami: Exactly. So there are two things that are strange. First of all, there are no enemies left; God took care of your enemies. Secondly, what do you mean we're supposed to erase Amalek's memory? I thought that's God's job? God said, I'm going to do it. So here I think the Torah is actually alluding to the fact that there's a physical battle against Amalek, but that the mitzvah of erasing Amalek's memory goes way beyond any physical enemies.
I wonder if what Ki Teitzei is setting up for us is even when you don't have anybody attacking you anymore, there's still a mitzvah of erasing the memory of Amalek. But it's not about fighting anybody at this point. It's about battling Amalek the way that Moses, Aaron, and Hur battled Amalek. It's about remembering to take care of your brothers. It's about not taking advantage of people who are weak and vulnerable.
You know, I'm thinking sometimes when we have a common enemy, sometimes when collectively we're under threat, maybe that's something that kind of alerts my attention oh, you know, I'm going to go out of my way to protect somebody now because there's an enemy. But where's that motivation going to come from when there's no enemy attacking me anymore? It sounds to me like Moses is preparing the people to enter the land and he's saying, there's going to come a time when you have no enemies anymore to unite you. Even then, you're going to have to erase Amalek's memory. How are you going to do that? You're going to do that by taking care of each other. You're going to do that by not letting people become stragglers and leaving people who are vulnerable to suffer and rot, but you're going to extend yourself to support them and take care of them.
Daniel: Ami, that's really cool. Thank you for sharing this with me. This link is so interesting. It's like yibum and Amalek are two sides of the same coin, right? Make sure to be proactive in taking care of people who are vulnerable and make sure to completely reject the theory that Amalek represents of taking advantage of those who are vulnerable.
Ami: Really, at the end of the day, both of these mitzvot are pointing us to the same ethic. Look out for your brothers and your sisters; don't let them fall by the wayside.
Daniel: Ami, you know, I think my notions of Amalek were very different before this conversation. I definitely want to revisit those now and see how this meshes. So thanks for giving me something to think about.
Ami: Thanks for exploring it with me, Daniel, this was awesome. Listeners, thank you for joining us this week. I just encourage you as you look through the parshah of Ki Teitzei, there's a whole slew of references to brothers, to family, to children and parents and spouses. Take a look there and see if you see any of these themes repeating themselves throughout the parshah. Thanks again for listening and remember, if you have not yet, please subscribe, rate us five stars, and as always, send us your comments and questions and thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing from you.