Amalek and the Amygdala

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In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Beshallach, the newly liberated Israelites do battle with their arch-enemies, the Amalekites. After the Israelites emerge victorious, God tells Moses:

Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Exodus 17:14)

At first glance this seems like a bizarre statement. Why would God want to blot out the memory of Israel’s enemy? Wouldn’t it make more sense for God to say, “Never forget Amalek!” (In an even more puzzling version of this verse, we will later read in Deuteronomy 25:19: “…you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”)

“Eytz Hayim: Torah and Commentary” offers this explanation:

Blot out the memory: that is, blot out their name, wipe them out.

This “zero-sum” view, sadly, completely misses the central imperative of these verses. Total eradication of the enemy is not the point here. Indeed, the Torah makes it clear that Amalek can never and will never completely be destroyed (see 17:16: “The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”) Even a cursory review of this text will reveal that it is less concerned with Amalek per se than with the power of collective memory.

This is the essential concern of the Amalekite episode: what will the memory of this traumatic event do to the Israelites? Will it transform them into a fearful people, gripping them so tightly that they will see Amalek at every turn in their journey? Or will they be able to rise above, to liberate themselves from its poisonous effects?

It is notable that the two references to Amalek in the Torah occur immediately after the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 17: 8-17:16) and immediately before the Israelites’ entrance into the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 25: 17-25:19). This suggests that their ability to become a truly free people is directly related to their wherewithal to free themselves from the power of this terrible collective memory. While Israel must remain vigilant, the new nation must not be born into fear.

There is, quite simply, a profound difference between being a vigilant people and being a fearful people. This lesson has resonated powerfully for the Jewish people as we have confronted a variety of “Amaleks” throughout our history. Sadly, it is even more resonant for the post-9/11 world in general. In this age of 24 hour news reports and color-coded terror alerts, it could be said that our collective fear response has been activated to an all-time high.

When we respond to the world with nothing but our own fears, then Amalek will have indeed succeeded. But when we honestly come to grips with the power fear wields over us, we will come to know the true meaning of liberation.

Postscript: Neurological research indicates that “fear memory” has a dramatic power over the human condition. Like other animals, our brains store away fearful memories and re-experience them in powerful ways when we feel threatened. This “fight or flight” impulse is a very basic survival mechanism, conditioned in our brains from birth. The part of our brain that processes fear, the amygdala, creates a steady output of stress hormones when stimulated, inducing a state of hypervigilance. The amygdala can often override the thinking brain – when this occurs, reasoned memory takes a back seat to fear memory.

Dr. Marc Siegel, who has reported extensively on the post- 9/11 “epidemic of fear”, writes that the key to controlling our fear is letting go of the illusion that we can control our enemies – and instead to put our fears in their proper place:

To be sure, individual citizens can’t control or defeat terrorists in this country or any other, and it’s this feeling of helplessness and uncertainty that compounds what terror achieves. Even so, what we can control is our perspective and our understanding of the world.

3 thoughts on “Amalek and the Amygdala

  1. you refer to enemies a few times, war throughout the ages and remaining vigiliant- destroying them, fear and terrorism.No talk of peace empathy or compassion.It Sure Sounds to me like you are really spewing state policy/doctrine which, in knowing circles, is named totalitarianism. Don’t you think this god goobullygook has been used to spearhead one to many wars for someone elses’ territory or riches?

  2. Not to be unappreciative, Rabbi, but if I do blot out Amalek from my memory, won’t I forget the lesson of your D’Var Torah? Was this intended to be a Cyber Conundrum?

    Let’s instead remember Molly Ivins, the columnist who bravely spoke out against the amygdala response to 9/11 by this Administration and the weaklings in Congress who let them launch this Iraq War and Fiasco.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  3. Note that the Exodus account is far more ambiguous about who started the fight between Amalek and Israel than the acount in Deut. The preparations between Moses and Joshua could be interpreted to imply that Israel acted first. However in Moses’s account, 40 years later, and to a new generation, Amalek is the unambiguous instigator and Israel is found blameless. Likewise, my daughter’s 2nd grade history textbook has many things to say about how awful the British were without giving any accounts of non-violent alternatives available to the colonists, such as how Canada achieved independence. Perhaps the Torah is telling us to be mindful of the way history demonizes our past enemies to justify our past actions.

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