Would you rather be a martyr, a hero, or a builder? Each of these, says anthropologist Mary Douglas, corresponds to a different kind of society. Each creates a different prism through which to view the world.
Take this week’s reminder to remember Amalek, our biblical arch-enemy mentioned in Deuteronomy 25. Amalek tracked the Israelites escaping Egypt, ambushing the stragglers who were too weak to keep up with everyone else. Ever since, we have been commanded to remember what Amalek did to us. Martyrs, heroes, and builders remember Amalek differently.
Martyrdom does not run deep in Jewish tradition. Conditions of the late 19th and 20th centuries — life under the czar, then Hitler and Stalin — supplied Jewish martyrs in abundance. But these were martyrs against their will. Judaism boasts a well-known aversion to offering oneself up for slaughter. Almost all the mitzvot may be disobeyed if they threaten to make martyrs of us.
True, we Jews do have martyr stories, like the apocryphal tale of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, who died at the hand of a medieval bishop but left us the Un’taneh Tokef as his everlasting bequest. Hanukka too evokes tales of martyrs — like the torture of Hannah and her seven sons. But when the rabbis canonized the Bible, they kept Hannah out; and Amnon of Mainz is pure fiction.
Were we a culture of martyrs, we would rally this Shabbat to glorify those who died at Amalek’s hand. We would ever be wary of the next inevitable Amalek, all the while training another generation to die for some greater cause. We would spend Shabbat lamenting — but also, perversely, celebrating — our steady string of martyrs as the very essence of Jewish history.
The very idea is anathema to us. We are not a martyr culture.
We are more inclined to value heroes, the visionaries and sages whom Judaism numbers in abundance. Some synagogues still feature religious schools with whole curricula devoted to Jewish heroes. The walls of federations, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions feature pictures like David Ben-Gurion reading the Declaration of Independence and Moshe Dayan entering reconquered Jerusalem. The Orthodox world even has hero cards of rabbis — like the baseball cards that other kids collect.
As the baseball cards suggest, however, our hero-worship has less to do with Jewish authenticity than with our successful adaptation to secular culture. From John Wayne and James Bond to Superman and Batman, Hollywood panders to our adulation of heroes who turn up at the last moment and save the day.
So heroes are more American than they are Jewish. Were we Jews a genuine hero society, we would recall Amalek by educating a cadre of individualists outfitted for guerrilla warfare. “Let ’em come at us,” we would growl at the new Amaleks-in-the-making. “We are ready for you.”
Not that we are utterly innocent of hero-worship. We have fallen prey to the myth of an invincible Israeli military, we love to count Jewish Nobel Prize winners, and much of Jewish life is fueled by entrepreneurial philanthropists for whom we should be grateful. But look more closely at these philanthropists. Their heroism lies not in their Jewish Lone Rangerism, but in their ultimate commitment to the third possibility, the truly Jewish one: a culture of builders.
Unlike heroes who live for the moment, builders plan long-term. They know they are links in a multi-generational project that they inherited from their elders and will pass on to those who succeed them. They may be anonymous, or if they are known, it is because they merit our ongoing thanks, not because they turn up in the limelight before riding off into the sunset, the way heroes do. Jewish builders remember Amalek by the slow and steady work of constructing a Jewish community that is institutionally sound enough to flourish, come what may.
Commentators have suggested we read our parsha in three ways. Its opening call, “tzav” (“command”), can imply urgency, immediacy, or patience. Urgency matches martyrdom: If we do not remember the Israelites whom Amalek killed, thousands more will die, for we are a nation of stragglers, regularly under attack. Immediacy corresponds to heroism: Remember Amalek for today, and let tomorrow’s stragglers remember Amalek for themselves.
Patience is what best befits us Jewish builders: investing in institutions with demonstrated long-term staying power, not just emergency appeals of the moment and flashy fads that may be here today but gone tomorrow. We remember Amalek best by the slow and intentional work of building a Jewish society that is culturally rich, intellectually compelling, and religiously deep: attractive enough to leave no stragglers behind.