Parashat Ki Tetze
August 26, 2023 | 9 Elul 5783
Torah: Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 Triennial:
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
Amalek or Me?
Our parashah finishes with three chilling verses: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt, how he fell upon you on the way and cut down all the stragglers, with you famished and exhausted, and he did not fear God. And it shall be, when the LORD your God grants you respite from all your enemies around in the land that the LORD your God is about to give you in estate to take hold of it, you shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens, you shall not forget.”
As is the case with much of the Book of Deuteronomy, this is Moses’s retelling of prior events. The first time we heard about Amalek was back in Exodus. The story is very different there. We read that Amalek came to do battle with Israel, and we learn of Moses raising his hands up to ensure success in battle, eventually having his hands supported with stones. But there is no mention of Amalek coming to take advantage of the weak among us when we were at our worst. Moreover, God says, “Write this down as a remembrance in a record, and put it in Joshua’s hearing, that I will surely wipe out the name of Amalek from under the heavens.” In Exodus it is God who will wipe out God’s name, rather than us, the Israelites, as it is in Deuteronomy..
Biblical scholar Diana Lipton has a fascinating read on why Deuteronomy tells a story of Amalek as aggressor and Israel as responsible for dealing with Amalek whereas Exodus presents Amalek as having done nothing exceptionally wrong and holds God as responsible for wiping out Amalek. By reading the story told in Deuteronomy 25 about Amalek in context with the rest of Deuteronomy 25, Lipton adds a new layer of meaning. The story becomes a narrative to reinforce the laws mentioned before it in the parashah, much as in Deuteronomy Moses retells the story of Miriam getting skin disease when he mentions the laws around skin disease. They become examples, almost parables, to help us understand the importance of observing the law and how to do so.
The law cited at length before the story of Amalek is about protecting the weakest members of society. The law of levirate marriage is intended to protect the widow and the deceased among the Israelites. Of course, these are the very people that the Deuteronomy presents Amalek as attacking – Amalek fell upon us and attacked the stragglers, the weak, those unable to defend themselves. This becomes his great crime in the Deuteronomic retelling.
Moreover, with levirate marriage, we read that if a husband dies, leaving his wife without a son, his brother becomes responsible for fathering a child, “in the name of his dead brother, that his name be not wiped out from Israel.” The words used here are identical to the words found in the story of Amalek in Exodus and echoed in Deuteronomy. In the case of levirate marriage, the point is to prevent a name from being wiped out. In the case of Amalek, the point is to ensure that the name and the memory are wiped out. But, the law of levirate marriage continues, providing instructions for what to do when a kinsman refuses to do his duty, refuses to prevent the name and memory of his brother from being wiped out, refuses to protect the widow. Lipton posits that Deuteronomy is going so far as to imply that a kinsman who would refuse to fulfill this duty is acting just as the Amalekites did, attacking us at our weakest. The desire to wipe out the name and memory of Amalek becomes transformed into the desire to wipe out the desire inherent in ourselves to act this way, to take advantage of the weak among us rather than supporting them.
Deuteronomy also changes who is responsible for accomplishing this task. In Exodus, God will wipe out the name of Amalek. In Deuteronomy, we will. Deuteronomy takes the difficult, seemingly genocidal story of Amalek and transforms it into a parable of Israelites communal responsibility. It becomes a moralistic tale of why you’d best support the widow, lest someone accuse you of behaving like Amalek.