Though his mean-spirited attack on the Israelites occurred years before, his name continued to rankle amongst the Israelites, and Moses’ farewell speech solemnly warned the people never to forget the name or deeds of Amalek.
Amalek was a descendant of Esau (Gen. 36:12), though the Torah finds earlier evidence of Amalekites at the time of Abraham (Gen. 14:7).
The Amalekites had a long tradition of enmity towards Israel, and the episode which best expressed this was soon after the Exodus when Amalek and his people tried to prevent the Israelites from moving through the wilderness. “He met you by the way, and attacked the hindmost of you, all that were feeble at your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God” (Deut. 25:17).
Because he lacked compassion and humanity, Amalek was designated as the enemy with whom God was at war forever.
As the paradigm enemy, he was considered in rabbinical literature as the symbol of the hated Romans, and, like the Romans, he is said to have injured the Israelites “by mutilating their bodies and mocking at the Abrahamic covenant”.
So fierce was the Amalekite attack that Moses feared that Israel would be defeated; he thereupon prayed to God, “O Lord, who will spread your Torah in future if Amalek succeeds in destroying this nation?” Moses now lifted up his arms, supported by Joshua and Hur, to give the people courage and faith (Mechilta).
The statement that God would be at war with Amalek for ever (Ex. 17:16) was paraphrased by the sages in the words, “Never will the throne of God, the Lord of truth, justice and love, be fully established until the seed of Amalek, the spirit of hatred and wrongdoing, is destroyed forever” (Pesikta).
The warning in parashat Ki Tetzei to remember Amalek is read also on the Shabbat before Purim as a reminder that King Saul’s leniency towards Agag, king of the Amalekites, made it possible for an Amalekite descendant, Haman, to threaten the Jews at the time of Mordechai and Esther.