As Jewish communities gather to celebrate the Purim holiday under the shadow of a global pandemic, it is worth heeding a piece of wisdom embedded in one of the scriptures most closely associated with the holiday. On the Sabbath before Purim, observant Jews traditionally study a biblical passage known as Parashat Zakhor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). This text recounts how the ancient nation known as Amalek attacked the Children of Israel in the wilderness shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. “Remember,” admonishes the passage, “what Amalek did to you on the way when you left Egypt, for they surprised you on the way, and they hit from your rear all the vulnerable who were behind you.” The text concludes with the exhortation to “blot out the memory of Amalek from underneath the heavens — do not forget!”
The text raises a question: The biblical Israelites had a lot of enemies, so why is Amalek singled out for unique condemnation? Perhaps it’s because there is something singularly evil about targeting the vulnerable, and the kind of foe who would do such a thing is someone God commands us to be eternally vigilant against. It’s a deep lesson: Regardless of how peaceful and prosperous we are, the pernicious force that targets the weak is uniquely enduring and persistent.
Amalek is a good metaphor for diseases like COVID-19, which uniquely threaten and hurt those who are already the most vulnerable: the marginalized, the poor, the sick, the weak. Many of us are fortunate enough to be in positions where we can, so to speak, ride out the storm. We can avoid public gatherings, we can stock up on food and supplies, we have paid sick days, we have ready access to quality healthcare and the resources to afford it, we have family and friends who can help pick up our slack or the ability to hire outside help when we need.
But many others are not so fortunate, and natural disasters like disease pandemics expose these inequities because they primarily and disproportionately impact those who are already marginal and vulnerable.
This, I think, points to the real reason why the Torah is especially concerned with the history and legacy of the Israelites’ encounter with Amalek. It’s not exactly because Amalek targeted the vulnerable. That is to be expected; it’s what enemies like Amalek do. No, it’s because the Children of Israel should have known that leaving their weakest members exposed and defenseless put them at great risk of harm from an enemy like Amalek. As one modern Hasidic master, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Zachs, puts it, “If the Israelite nation had not forgotten these vulnerable people, and rather had brought them under the protection of the Divine Presence… by including them with the rest of the population, Amalek could not have harmed them.” (Iturei Torah, Parashat Ki Teitzei).
That’s why we are admonished to remember what happened with Amalek. That’s why we are commanded not to forget: Because there will always be enemies that target the vulnerable, whether those enemies are human or forces of nature, whether those enemies are deliberately hostile or indiscriminately damaging. Our job is to keep the most vulnerable among us front of mind, to ensure the weakest among us are protected, included in our communal concern and shielded by our care.
Our job, to quote Scripture, is ultimately to create a society in which there are no needy, where justice prevails and equity reigns.
Unfortunately, our real-life track record at heeding this warning is not so good. For example, here in Virginia, where I live, one million people — including 81% of food service workers, 75% of childcare workers, and 47% of nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides — have no paid sick leave, and are forced to go to work when they are ill and send their children to school when they are sick. To add insult to injury, when the first Virginian tested positive for coronavirus, the Virginia Senate refused to vote for a bill to require employers to offer paid sick days to workers, according to Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. The next day, the Senate killed the bill for good. This is not only a gross injustice, but an urgent public health concern. When folks have to go to work when they’re sick, contagious illnesses will spread. And when our representatives fail to provide for their welfare, we are at least partly responsible.
Systems like this empower Amalek-like enemies such as coronavirus, because they leave the most vulnerable among us uniquely exposed. It is incumbent upon us to ensure everyone is brought equally under the community’s protective care. And when we work to build such a just and equitable society, the deadliness of pandemics and other natural disasters can be blunted.
Conversely, when we fail to uphold this responsibility and people die, their blood is, at least in part, on our hands.
May those who have been infected with coronavirus experience a full and speedy recovery, may the families of the bereaved find consolation, and may we have the strength and insight necessary to make our way through these anxious times.
Originally published by The Forward: https://forward.com/opinion/441172/coronavirus-is-our-amalek-the-torahs-lesson-is-clear-protect-the/