Just last week, after I completed a visit with a patient at a hospital I work at, my mind started racing about all of the things I could have done better. Why did I say X instead of Y? Metaphorically I beat myself up. It’s as if a voice came from behind and told me I didn’t do a good enough job.
Does this sound familiar? We remember our deeds and we relive them over and over —to our detriment. We use our minds to berate ourselves rather than focusing on what we’ve done well. Now to be sure I’m not suggesting that the voice inside our heads that wants us to do better is always in the wrong – indeed we need a gentle push to constantly work to improve ourselves. However, what we don’t need is to feel attacked, weak, alone and abandoned.
This Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim, is called Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat of Remembering). We read an additional section from Deuteronomy and remember what the Amalekites did to the Israelites after they left Egypt. Deuteronomy 25:17-19 states:
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, they surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Having just left Egypt, the Israelites were a fragile people traveling through the desert and the Amalekites attacked them from behind – taking advantage of their weaknesses. The Israelites didn’t stand a chance, yet with God’s help the Israelites routed the Amalekites, and our people’s story continues.
Incidentally, we read this portion before Purim because the hated Haman is said to descend from the Amalekites. On Purim we symbolically blot out Haman the Amalekite with our noise makers. But this commandment to physically blot out the Amalek people has always confounded me. I am stupefied. Why would the Torah command us to obliterate an entire people – men, women, and children; young and old?
One way that our commentators understand the directive is that Amalek is within us. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the Ger Rebbe, known as the Sefat Emet tells us: “Ve’ikar peirush ze’chira hi penimiyus ha’chiyus.” That is, the essence of “zechira” (remembering) is a person’s inner vibrancy – one’s inner consciousness and awareness. If remembering is awareness/consciousness, we can begin to understand what the Torah means when it tells us to obliterate Amalek.
The Sefat Emet has given us a radically new interpretation of what it means to wipe out Amalek. We wipe out Amalek by living our lives in a state of awareness. Obliterating Amalek means living our lives in a thoughtful manner.
The Sefat Emet teaches us that Amalek dwells within each one of us; we are each susceptible to the Amalek that attaches itself to the straggling thoughts and feelings. When we are most fragile and susceptible and feel defeated Amalek attacks. Amalek actually lives in each of us, and it is a commandment to defeat it. Imagine if we could rid our self of our inner Amalek. Imagine if those straggling thoughts could be kept in check and show us a new direction rather than invite the inner voice that seeks to defeat us.
Back to that dark place within each of us: you know the place – the negative self talk, those fragile places where we feel wounded. We have indeed attacked what’s good about us – it is that very kernel of ourselves that works so hard to defeat us. Our inner Amalek that attacks us when we are feeling weak. The internal critic that beats us down again when we were just getting our footing.
We are each comprised of the possibility of being a mighty warrior and a frail straggler – we are both/and. Yet this Shabbat let’s take the commandment seriously and work to utterly destroy the Amalek within us.
Chaplain Deborah Schmidt