On Roots and Inheritance

21 March 2024
By: Eden Glaser

My Modern Hebrew vocabulary has recently blossomed in a way it has not since I took ulpan back in college. This time, though, it is not because I am learning words related to shopping or studying; I am, instead, expanding my vocabulary of violence. In order to understand modern Hebrew as it relates to the war in the Holy Land, I have to contrive the conjugation for the verb “to be taken hostage,” and learn the nouns for “ceasefire” and “shooting.” It is this latter word, “shooting,” whose Hebrew form, ירי (pronounced yeri), I cannot stop thinking about. 

The Hebrew root for “shooting” is the same root as “Torah,” both contain the same tripartite letter formulation common in semitic languages. In other words, they both have the same semantic heritage. Perhaps the correlation between these terms, connected since their biblical usage, has to do with their straight trajectory; arrows toward a target and teachings toward the hearts of learners. However, I cannot escape the connection of Torah with shooting. It makes me wonder which translation of “Torah”—“shooting” or “teaching”—predominates. The semantic range of the crucial root that builds the name of our most sacred text is broad, and it includes violence. How are we to contend with this dissonance? I wonder, is our inheritance the biblical teaching of ethical and moral principles that guarantee a more harmonious humanity? Or, perhaps, is our inheritance the violence embedded not just in the root of “torah,” but in its content? 

We are approaching Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat on which we remember the evils of Amalek, and then Purim, where the evil Haman is considered the quintessential Amaelekite. It seems to me that, when we approach our texts, our torah, we have a hermeneutical choice. Taking Deuteronomy 25:18, which states “[Amalek] surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear,” as an example, we can learn one of two things, depending on how we choose to interpret. The lesson is either do not harm others especially while they are vulnerable or, more violently, take revenge on those who have harmed you. In other words, do not do to your enemies as they have done to you or seek recompense at all costs. The question is: Which is our inheritance? 

I turn to our festival calendar for guidance. This upcoming Shabbat, Jewish communities the world over will append three verses from Deuteronomy, including the one above, to the usual weekly Torah portion. These verses offer the eternal injunction to not forget what Amalek did, when they attacked the Israelites from behind as they wandered the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. The deuteronomic verses we read on Shabbat Zakhor as well as the haftarah portion, situate Haman within the genealogical line of Amalek, and set the stage for the perennial casting of various historical oppressors of Israel as these figures. 

The Torah pairs the command to never forget the evils that Amalek wrought with the directive to erase their memory from under heaven. The Israelites, it seems, are meant to achieve this eradication through divinely sanctioned violence. King Saul, for example, puts the entire population of Amalek—adults, children, and even livestock—to the sword. And as Jews the world over will read in a few short days, in the Book of Esther, part of the Jews’ victory is not just that they survive Haman’s plot to destroy them, but the intentional decimation of their enemies. Indeed, the Jews not only hang Haman and his ten sons, but kill a presumably exaggerated figure of 75,000 other foes. 

The lesson of Purim, then, is something much more grim than the oft-cited aphorism, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” In this story, the “winning” comes at the cost of human life, and this enduring teaching is tainted with violence. By ceaselessly connecting Amalek with Haman, and by extension, with all enemies of Israel, we may be prone to the valorization of violence and the hardening of our hearts. 

A plain reading of the texts for Shabbat Zakhor and Purim may incline one towards the notion that violence and vengeance are our inheritance. Yet, another text, from the Babylonian Talmud, provides a contrary approach, a story that denounces violence. Masechet Megillah teaches that one should become so intoxicated on Purim that they can no longer tell the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai. Immediately after this command, the Talmud relates the following story: One Purim, a sage named Rabba, killed his colleague, Rabbi Zeira, in a drunken stupor. God then revives the latter, but Rabbi Zeira, now back from the dead, decides that he does not want to celebrate Purim with Rabba the following year, arguing that “miracles cannot happen every year”—in other words, if he’s murdered again, he may not be brought back to life. The lesson is that one should neither rely on miracles nor allow a metaphoric drunkenness to pervade into their sense of what is right, good, and proper. 

What we learn from this story is that there is a danger in an inebriated morality—when one is drunk with power they can, even accidentally, kill someone. Thinking about the metaphor of Amalek, we can sometimes extend it so far that it blurs the line not between hero and villain but between a faceless, dehumanized enemy and an actual human being worthy of life and safety. This blurring is phenomenally dangerous and, unfortunately, we can see its manifestation in every corner of the Holy Land today; from the indiscriminate attacks perpetrated by Hamas in the southern communities of Israel to the extreme response taken by the Israeli military in Gaza or the increasing settler violence in the occupied West Bank. Unlike the sanctioned, raucous behavior we indulge in on the upcoming, joyous holiday of Purim, in our everyday lives, we must know the difference. We must know the difference between the enemy and human being. 

There is an antidote to a pervasive violence: historical awareness. Rabbi Zeira chooses not to engage in the same behavior that caused him harm. We, too, should remember our past in order to avoid the blindness of the intoxicating, vengeful temptations of the present. We must somehow simultaneously remember and destroy Amalek, eradicating cyclical violence but not eradicating the lessons it teaches. We must understand that Amalek is but a metaphor. There is no historical Amalek and to extend the injunction to destroy a people onto any extant group is a misrepresentation of the Torah’s message. Rather, we must remember Amalek so that we do not visit their sins upon others. I have so often heard Jewish people, even in liberal circles, argue that the Palestinians are today’s descendants of Amalek and, as such, justify violence against an entire people. This rhetoric makes me worry that we are remembering the wrong thing. 

This is our inheritance: a near-boundless collection of text and teaching that helps us strive toward a recognition of common humanity. Indeed, our Torah is not just derived from the same root as “shooting,” but it is famously a tree of life when we grasp it firmly. And hold onto it we must: we must hold onto the life-giving lessons embedded in our Torah. We must choose life and love our neighbor. We also must do these things while balancing the truism that our text is also full of violence and vengeance. 

So long as we elect to remember our enemies and the horrors they wrought on our biblical and historical ancestors or in the present day, we need not superimpose their wickedness on innocent, living human beings. Let us remember the evil that Amalek did to our ancestors—attack them when they were famished and weary in the desert—and vow to stand up against it when we see others do the same in our day. 

May we know and celebrate our inheritance.