Friday, March 18, 2011

your amalek and mine

Bear-in-mind what Amalek did to you on the way, at your going-out from Egypt, how he encountered you on the way and attacked-your-tail - all the beaten-down-ones at your rear - while you were weary and faint, and thus he did not stand-in-awe of God. So it shall be: when YHVH your God gives-you-rest from all your enemies round about in the land that YHVH your God is giving you as an inheritance, to possess it, you are to blot out the name of Amalek from under the heavens; you are not to forget! (Deut. 25:17-19, trans. Fox)

Who is Amalek? We know that Amalek must be totally destroyed; that is, that Amalek is completely unredeemable. Our history knows of many villains, individuals and nations. What makes an enemy so dangerous that against it, and only it, the Torah demands eternal warfare, eternal vigilance? What makes the crime of Amalek worse than that of Egypt, the enslaver, or Moab, the seducer? The Philestine kingdom of Lebanon helped to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, but Amalek, and Amalek alone is to have no place on God's green earth.

What did Amalek do? The Torah tells us that he attacked the stragglers, those who had fallen outside the camp. But the very notion of stragglers should give us pause. As the Torah describes it, the Israelite community on the march was much like an army, with every tribe in its place, every clan intact. Who was there to be left behind? Surely even the old and weak had families to look after them. Amalek's victims, then, must have been those who were not only weary, but who were allowed to fall behind.

Is it hard to imagine that God's own chosen would let some fall by the wayside? It shouldn't be. For while in our stories we tend to romanticize the poor and the sick (whether it's the begger as Elijah of folklore or the saintly-homeless-man of so many movies) many of the weakest in our society are downright unattractive. They are the people we hope will not sit next to us on the subway, the people whose neighborhoods (if they are lucky enough to have neighborhoods) we avoid. They are hicks and yokels; racists, misogynists, and homophobes with primitive ideas. Filthy and dangerous, or just weird and unpleasant, we don’t actively persecute them (we’re way to progressive for that) but neither are they foremost in our hearts and minds.

This does not make us wicked; it is part of being human. We are limited beings and our capacity for compassion is likewise limited. Our areas of concern are a series of concentric circles - sometimes ill-defined, sometimes porous, but they are there. The Tradition acknowledges this, even mandates it. We are obligated to see to the needs of those closest to us (by kinship or geography) first. True, there are cases in which a need may be so pressing that it compels attention and jumps to the head of the line, so to speak, but generally the Torah is content to assume that everyone falls within someone’s inner circle. It is those who do not, the widow, orphan, and stranger that the text commends to our particular and communal care.

As well it should. Because we see in our own world what happens to those on the outskirts of our concern: they die. Their nutrition is worse, their shelter is worse, their medical care is worse and comes later. Having the least to spare they are more subject to violence, robbery, fraud. Whether it’s defined by “lifestyle” or skin color or status or general attractiveness, those at the margins are at the greatest risk. And though surely death comes to us all, it is equally sure that death comes most aggressively to those who have none to look after them. For Amalek waits to strike at those who fall behind.

The Torah tells us all we need to know. Amalek is the enemy that preys on those who are left behind. And Amalek must always be remembered because Amalek cannot be killed - not by the sword, at any rate, for Amalek is called into existence by his prey. For Amalek to be defeated, he must be starved. It is this aspect of the enemy which drives the almost desperate anxiety of our passage. Because Amalek will spring up wherever there are holes in the safety net, whenever our guard is down. If we forget to watch out, if we forget to take care, if we forget that everyone in the society must - must - be cared for, there will be an enemy waiting for them in the wilderness. Amalek will only be fully vanquished and his name blotted out when he becomes unimaginable; that is, when the very idea of stragglers will be as foreign to us as the idea of child sacrifice.

And one more thing. Our reading is not just a reminder, not just a warning. It is a command. The war against Amalek, victory over Amalek, is now our responsibility. If Amalek survives, it is because we allow it. If he takes victims, it is because we have failed. And when people die who didn’t have to because they were behind us, because they were beneath us, well, that blood is on our hands. Out here in the desert there is no other way.