When Amalek Went Viral

The holiday of Purim this year coincides with the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus, which has prompted schools and other institutions to close, and synagogues to rethink their holiday plans.

As with many, if not most infections diseases, those at highest risk are the elderly, the very young, and those with compromised immune systems. This isn’t news, and those of us healthy individuals who are at a much lower risk need to do much more than assuage our fears with the knowledge that if they do catch the virus, it will probably be a mild cold-like illness. We need to step up, and we need to cultivate compassion.

This past Shabbat was Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. Our final Torah reading is three verses reminding the Israelites to remember what Amalek did to them when they were wandering in the wilderness, which was to attack from the rear, they did not fear/revere God, and they preyed on the old, the tired and the infirm. Apparently, Amalek wasn’t familiar with the laws of the Geneva Convention.

No, Amalek didn’t play fairly, and yes, King Saul was supposed to destroy them and didn’t. The descendants of Amalek survived, and our tradition teaches that Haman–the villain of Purim–was one of them.

We can read this passage another way, and I think we need to. We need to ask, “why were the weary, the elderly and the sick in the back? Why weren’t they protected in the middle of the community where they wouldn’t be vulnerable?”

Deuteronomy 25:18 reads, אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כָּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחַרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים׃
(Asher kar-kha ba-derekh va y’zaneiv b’ka kol ha nekheshalim acharekha, v’aaah ayaif v’yagay-ah v’lo yi-rah Elohim)

The usual translation is “how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” But we can also read this as, “Amalek surprised you on the march, cutting off the feeble in your rear when you were tired and hungry and didn’t fear/revere God.”

The wandering Israelites, only months out of slavery in Egypt, hadn’t yet learned to work together as a cohesive community that cared for the vulnerable among them. As a result, Amalek was able to pick off the stragglers.

We’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity and inclusiveness in the Jewish community and in the world. Although God’s name doesn’t appear in Megillat Esther, God is clearly present throughout the entire story. To me, The Divine has stepped back to allow the people to step up and be the authors of their destiny, and they do.

This is our charge as well; remember that when we remind ourselves online that “those with compromised immune systems are most at risk,” it’s insulting to those who are in greater danger. On Purim, we give Mishloach Manot, gifts of food, and Matanot l’Evyonim, gifts to the poor. Whether you’re stuck inside, afraid to go out, or somewhere in between, you can give the gift of compassion to those who need it as we battle a viral Amalek.

  1. Carole Leskin

    I love this! So little is said or written from your point of view…. compassion for those who are sick, frail or vulnerable is more of a burden than a community responsibility according to most who report on this pandemic. At times like this we really see who we are. We should be ashamed!

    • SusanSchwam

      Thank you. We have a lot of work to do.


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