This week’s Keriat HaTorah has a special Maftir and Haftarah, that of Parashat Zachor. In the Maftir (Devarim 25:17-19), three Pesukim are read, each with its own separate function. One commands Bnei Yisrael to always remember Amaleik’s attack upon them ancestors as they left Egypt; another details exactly what Amaleik did; the third commands them to destroy all traces of Amaleik and not to forget. The third Pasuk is repeated by many Ahkenazim during the Keriah because there is a difference in opinion about how to pronounce the nineteenth word, albeit without changing its meaning. The first time the Pasuk is read, the Baal Korei pronounces the word as “Zeicher,” and during the second he pronounces it “Zecher.”
This practice seems very odd. Why do many repeat the entire Pasuk (many only repeat the word Zeicher) simply because there is a dispute about the pronunciation of one word? In all other (rare) instances in which there is a Rabbinic dispute, including when the Pesukim of Zachor are read as part of the regular weekly Sidrah, the Baal Korei pronounces the word according to the custom of his community and does not bother to repeat it. However, even if he pronounces a word according to a minority opinion not followed by the local community, as long as there is no difference in meaning or spelling, he is neither corrected nor forced to repeat. Why, then, is the reading of Zachor as the special Maftir different?
In addition, if one examines the text of Parashat Zachor itself, a few problems arise. One, why is this section given a full three Pesukim, one of which is only a complete repeat of what Amaleik did? This is already detailed in Parashat BeShalach, the Torah section read on Purim day! Also, the second part of the third Pasuk seems to repeat the first Pasuk, with a negative commandment in addition to a positive commandment. Therefore, it should come before the first half of that Pasuk, not after it! Finally, the first half of the third Pasuk is extremely wordy and repetitive. Acknowledging all of these, Parashat Zachor should be written as something closer to, “Zachor VeLo Tishkach Eit Asher Asah Lecha Amaleik BaDerech BeTzeitechem MiMitzrayim. VeHayah Ki Yitein Hashem Elokecha Lecha Menuchah BeEretz Nachalatecha, Timcheh Et Zeicher Amaleik MiTachat HaShamayim,” “Remember, and don’t forget, what Amaleik did to you as you left Egypt. And when Hashem your G-d will give you peace in the land of your inheritance, you should erase all traces of Amaleik from under the heavens.” Although the double language of “remember and don’t forget” may seem awkward, it is already used in the command to remember how Bnai Yisrael angered Hashem in the desert (Devarim 9:7).
According to all Minhagim, Parshat Zachor is directly connected to Purim, as, according to Rav, it is always read on the Shabbat preceding Purim (Megilah 30a). On a basic level, the connection between the Maftir, Haftarah, and Purim is clear: the Maftir gives a command to destroy Amaleik, the Haftarah deals with the fulfillment of this command, although with the mistake of prolonging the life of the Amalekite king Agag long enough for him to bear a child, and the story of Purim describes the result of this mistake. (The entire danger of the Purim story is caused by Haman, a descendent of Agag’s child.) This connection is appealing, but it fails to explain why we repeat one of the Pesukim in the Maftir.
The lessons to be learned from Parashat Zachor can be derived fully only when the four sections of Maftir, Haftara, Torah reading for Purim, and Megillat Esther are closely compared. The Maftir begins by telling us to remember what Amaleik did; according to Rav, Amaleik’s action will be read within the next week, while according to Shmuel, it either was just read or will be read soon. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 603) writes that if one merely recites the words the Torah uses in commanding him to remember Amaleik but does not stop to contemplate and actually remind himself, he has not only failed to fulfill his Mitzvah to remember, he has also violated the command not to forget. We then detail exactly what Amaleik did: they ambushed us, killed off the stragglers of Bnai Yisrael from behind while Bnai Yisrael were weak, and, finally, Amaleik did not fear Hashem.
The Torah tells us exactly what Amaleik’s mistakes were: they attacked the weak and defenseless after giving themselves the additional advantages of surprise and being hidden, and they also did not fear Hashem. The Torah knows that when this is read as Parshat Zachor, the full story of their attack will be detailed in the near future, but it repeats these details to remind us exactly what Amaleik did wrong as a nation who feared everyone but Hashem, the One with the most power to harm it. The Torah hopes we will contemplate this and learn from the incident.
Parashat Zachor then continues by commanding us to kill Amaleik when Hashem will give us the land of Israel. The Torah uses the sesquipedalian language of “VeHayah BeHani’ach Hashem Elokecha Lecha MiKol Oyevecha MiSaviv BaAretz Asher Hashem Elokecha Notein Lecha Nachalah LeRishtah,” “And it will be when Hashem your G-d gives you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land where Hashem your G-d gives to you as an inheritance to possess it” (Devarim 25:19), to emphasize that it is Hashem who is the One who gives us peace from our enemies and the land, without us needing to have nearly as physically powerful an army as we should have to conquer such well-defended land and then without having any invasions from neighbors, assuming we still are faithful to Hashem (a faithfulness that, unfortunately, wavered often).
This is a direct contrast to Amaleik, who would attack only with a significant physical advantage and was completely ignorant of the power of Hashem. Shaul, as king, is commanded to destroy Amaleik under the above circumstances. He wages a war against Amaleik, and, with Hashem’s help, easily wins, killing all the men of Amaleik but Agag in the battle. He then makes the mistake of keeping Agag alive, even though Shmuel HaNavi had specifically told him to kill all of Amaleik (Shmuel Aleph 15:3). He fails to learn Amaleik’s lesson, as he ignores the word of Hashem, Who won the war for him, and saves the most powerful and dangerous of his enemy, acting similarly to Amaleik, who would fight only if they had an almost definite chance of victory, and even then only against the weak. After Shaul repeats Amaleik’s error, Agag has a son who is an ancestor of Haman.
Haman also fails to learn this lesson. The Persian Prime Minister asks the only man more powerful than he, King Achashveirosh, for permission to kill the people with whom he has an eternal feud, the Jews. Haman recognizes that there is a man more powerful than he, from whom he must seek aid and support for his plan, but fails to recognize Hashem. It is his inability to recognize the presence of an immortal Higher Power Who ultimately runs the show that causes his downfall, as he fails to realize that the queen, the one person whom the king prefers to him, is in fact Jewish. Esther, who the Chachamim say was seventy-five when Achashveirosh selected her (Bereishit Rabbah 39:13), was clearly placed in the palace purely by a miracle, something Haman should have realized but did not. From these stories, the Torah expects us to see that any who repeats the mistake of previous generations will suffer a similar fate, whether that fate be extreme dishonor in the case of Shaul, who eventually realizes his mistake (Shmuel I 15:24), or death in the case of Haman.
The Torah concludes the Maftir section with a reminder not to forget. This is not just a reminder of what Amaleik did and what mistakes they made, but a reminder of what will happen to any who fails to recognize the ever-present Hand of Hashem which manipulates all events in the world to fit into a master plan. It is Hashem and only Hashem who controls everything, a fact that we must recognize. It is in recognition of this that we repeat the last Pasuk with the word “Zecher” instead of the word “Zeicher,” not because it makes any difference in meaning, but because this is the section of recognizing the Heavenly Hand behind everything, and we are especially careful to know exactly what Hashem wants from us so we do not repeat the mistakes of previous generations.