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The Troubling Mitzvah of Destroying the “Amalek” (Zachor – 3/11/17)

Rabbi Neil SchumanThis Shabbat morning, we read the command to exterminate the memory of Amalek from the face of the earth:

ספר דברים פרק כה

יז) זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם:

יח) אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִים:

יט) וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח:

Deuteronomy 25:17 Remember what Amalek did to you on the road when you left Egypt; 18 How he met you by the way, and struck your stragglers, all that were enfeebled in thy rear when you were faint and weary; and you feared not God. 19 Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God gives you rest from all your enemies in the land which the LORD thy God gives you for an inheritance, that you shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

This act of revenge, hundreds of years after the attack strikes me as strange. How could we kill thousands of people for what their parents did?

Would it make sense now to retaliate against Germans for what their grandparents did? This doesn’t resonate with my 21st century sensibilities.

Likewise the blessing in our weekday Amidah, וְלַמַּלְשִׁינִים used to bother me:

וְלַמַּלְשִׁינִים אַל תְּהִי תִקְוָה, וְכָל הָרִשְׁעָה כְּרֶֽגַע תֹּאבֵד, וְכָל אוֹיְבֶֽיךָ מְהֵרָה יִכָּרֵֽתוּ, וְהַזֵּדִים מְהֵרָה תְעַקֵּר וּתְשַׁבֵּר וּתְמַגֵּר וְתַכְנִֽיעַ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵֽינוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, שֹׁבֵר אֹיְבִים וּמַכְנִֽיעַ זֵדִים.

Let there be no hope for informers, and may all the heretics and all the wicked instantly perish; may all the enemies of Your people be speedily extirpated; and may You swiftly uproot, break, crush and subdue the reign of wickedness speedily in our days. Blessed are You L-rd, who crushes enemies and subdues the wicked.

Why are we praying for people to be foiled and punished? Should prayer be used to hurt others? Wouldn’t it be better if we prayed for these sinners to receive opportunities to learn from their misdeeds and improve their behavior?

Initially, this prayer was formulated against the early Christians since they were considered heretics and dangerous to the future of Judaism. There are now a billion Christians; obviously, the prayer didn’t work, so why continue to say it?

Yet recently, in our “Torah Conundrums” class, I saw a new light on this issue.

Whereas certain mitzvot have been negated over time, the mitzvah of eliminating Amalak is not considered one of them. Temple based mitzvot and commands regarding the original Canaanite, Edomite and Egyptian peoples have been cancelled, for the identity of these peoples has been lost over the ages. In contrast, Maimonides, in his halachic compendium, Mishneh Torah, does not list Amalek as one of the lost peoples of the ancient world. Based upon this premise, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, speaking during the Nazi era, insisted that Amalek is a prototype for any person attempting to exterminate the Jewish people, and that the commandment to physically destroy such a person is still binding.  His son, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, applied this mitzvah to Arabs trying to destroy Israel in the 1950s.

Rabbi Eugene Korn in his article, “Moralization in Jewish Law” elaborates on this premise: “Instead of reducing Amalek to a nullity, the rabbis extended it to all individuals who exhibit this immoral behavior.

The command to annihilate Amalek reflects the biblical insistence that radical evil exists in human experience and that people protecting the civilized order are obligated to destroy that threat without compromise. It maintains that the correct moral response to radical evil is itself harshly radical–that short of a fundamental moral transformation by persons committed to such evil, one may offer neither quarter nor forgiveness. The moral imperative demands the rejection of any agreement toward coexistence, for ultimately coexistence is impossible. If not conquered totally, absolute evil will surely destroy the moral and social foundations of human civilization.”

Yet to whom could we say this description”surely and safely“applies?

Pope Urban II considered the Moslem conquerors of Jerusalem to be Amalek. Medieval Jews considered Christians to be Amalek.

Yet, could we say ISIS or Hamas, organizations insistent on indiscriminately killing Jews or others outside of their belief system are Amalek? Is the Torah telling us that with such people there is no mercy or dialogue, just elimination?

We innately believe in the good in humanity, but that is a generalization. Perhaps, the mitzvah of Zachor is our tradition’s stance on how to deal with such extremism. Although I’m not fond of praying against anyone, I now say וְלַמַּלְשִׁינִים with an intention against ISIS, “may their plans be foiled.”

The mitzvah of Zachor, is a hard pill to swallow; it’s telling us that against such extremists, there is no mercy, just elimination. It’s playing with fire and something we should never take lightly.

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