In reading Parshat Zachor (Deut. 25:17-19) we fulfill the commandment to remember what the nation of Amalek did to us. The sages instituted its reading just before Purim in order to link this mitzvah to the feast day on which we celebrate the blotting out of Haman, who was of Amalekite genealogy.
In order to better understand both our relationship with the nation of Amalek and the great importance the Torah places on the remembrance of this nation’s evil acts, we must take note of the fact that there are three explicit Torah commandments dealing with Amalek.
The first commandment is to “Remember that which Amalek did to you on the way, while you were leaving Egypt” (Deut. 25:17). In addition to being commanded to remember what they did to us, we are commanded not to forget, as it is written: “Do not forget” (ibid. 19). Lastly, there is a positive mitzvah to obliterate the entire nation of Amalek from the world, as it is written, “And when God allows you to rest from all of your surrounding enemies, in the land which the Lord your God has given you as an inheritance to possess, obliterate all memory of Amalek from under the sky” (ibid.).
Since the reading of Parshat Zachor is a Torah-based commandment, great care is taken that it be read with exactness and incantation from a choice Torah scroll. It is preferable that each individual hear it in the incantation and pronunciation of his own family’s custom. But even if one hears it in a different incantation and pronunciation, he has fulfilled his obligation.
(There are conflicting opinions as to whether or not women are obligated to hear Parshat Zachor. Most authorities rule they need not hear it. Still, it is preferable they hear it, or at least read it to themselves.)
What did Amalek do to cause the Torah to take such an extreme stand, commanding us to “obliterate all memory of Amalek from under the sky”?
Amalek was the first anti-Semite. The nation of Israel has a problem in this world. It appears the faith-related and ideological message of the Jews causes the evil people of the world to attack us.
This is not the place for an in-depth examination of the motives of anti-Semites throughout history, yet one thing is certain: There has never been a nation in the world so hunted down as the nation of Israel. Ink and paper would run out before all the stories of evil done to our people by the nations could be told.
And all of this began with Amalek. At the very birth of our nation, while we were leaving Egypt and even before we had an opportunity to organize and unify ourselves, Amalek came and attacked us for no cause or reason.
Amalek is a nation that, by its very existence, gives expression to hatred of the people of Israel, and, in turn, to hatred of the Torah and of the idea of perfecting the world through God’s kingship. Therefore, the Torah commands us to wipe that nation out.
But while the Torah commands us to obliterate the nation of Amalek, once an individual Amalekite decides to take upon himself the fulfillment of the seven mitzvot of Noah’s sons, there is, according to Jewish law, no longer an obligation to kill him. The Rambam writes that it is forbidden to declare war on anybody without first attempting to settle things peacefully; if an adversary agrees to our peace terms – the main condition of which is the adversary’s acceptance of the seven mitzvot of Noah’s sons – then we are forbidden to attack.
That is, the obligation to kill the Amalekites only applies when they refuse to accept the fundamental mitzvot the Torah places upon the children of Noah: not to worship idols, not to commit adultery or incest, not to murder, not to steal, not to curse God, not to eat flesh from a living animal, and to establish courts of justice to rule ethically and justly. When an Amalekite takes these mitzvot upon himself, he is no longer considered an Amalekite but rather a son of Noah.
There are conflicting opinions among Torah authorities regarding the question of Amalekite conversion to Judaism. In the Mechilta, Rabbi Eliezer teaches that God swore by his Throne of Glory that if an Amalekite should come to convert, he would not be accepted.