Parshat Zachor – Amalek
This week we read the second (and arguably the most prominent) of the “Arba Parshiot”, Parshat Zachor. In this shiur, I do not wish to focus on the actual reading of Parshat Zachor. Instead, I would like to explore some of the ideas behind the concept of Amalek as they emerge from various sources in Chazal and in contemporary commentators.
The passuk in Shemot (17:16) expresses Hashem’s enduring enmity toward Amalek. “VaYomer, ki yad al kes Ya; milchama l’Shem b’Amalek m’dor dor.” Rashi translates this passuk as follows: “And Moshe said, the hand of God is raised in oath on His throne, (stating that) He will engage in war and eternal hatred to Amalek”. Rashi then continues to quote the Midrash Tanchuma which further expands upon this oath.
What is the reason for this undying hatred? Ramban (17:16) quotes the well known position of Chazal, who differentiate between the behavior of the nations of the world toward the newly freed Jewish people as opposed to the behavior of Amalek. While the other nations, overawed by the miraculous powers that Hashem used to free Bnei Yisrael from slavery gave Am Yisrael a wide berth, Amalek rushed from their region to attack Bnei Yisrael and confront God. Rashi (Devarim 25:18) also quotes the Midrash, adding the colorful description of an individual jumping into a hot bath to cool it down for others, despite the burns he himself sustains. This then was Amalek’s goal, to demonstrate that despite the miracles that Hashem had performed for Am Yisrael that they were still vulnerable, and to pave the way for others to attack the Jews as well.
In his commentary to Sefer Shemot, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch expands upon this theme in order to explain why Amalek’s behavior is viewed so gravely. Amalek seeks to confront and destroy Am Yisrael precisely because we represent the antitheses to the raison d’etre of Amalek. Amalek is a nation that lives by the sword, and believes that a nation’s and an individual’s value and self worth are defined by power, and that power is a function of strength and violence. There is no moral power, only the power of force. The role that Hashem has given Am Yisrael is to disprove this thesis. In our view, both individual and national ideals are defined by the moral power and not the physical strength behind one’s values. This is a philosophy that Amalek can not abide. He therefore attacks and seeks to obliterate the nation which represents these values. This also explains why Hashem’s hatred toward Amalek is undying, and why we must destroy Amalek. The values of Amalek represent a total repudiation of the values for which Hashem created the world. If adopted, Amalek’s values mean that the world is an immoral cesspool, where “might is right” and where there is no place for divinely inspired morality. Only by uprooting Amalek’s value system can a world representing divine values take root and prosper. Since these two views of morality can not coexist we are commanded to erase Amalek and all it represents.
When we stop to consider Rav Hirsch’s approach, we can postulate that Rav Hirsch understands Amalek not as a defined nation but rather as an archetype that we are required to confront throughout the ages. The idea that Amalek is not defined nationally but behaviorally is suggested by Rav Yosef Soloveitchik in the name of his father, Rav Moshe and his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. (That the Rav suggested this is well known. Below I will be quoting from the recently published “Al HaTeshuot”, pg 28-32 in the Hebrew edition. It is also quoted in B’Sod HaYachid v’haYachad, pg 392, and perhaps elsewhere.)
Rav Chaim suggests that the idea of Amalek as an archetype, represented by different peoples during different periods in history, is in fact the position of Rambam. Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 5:4-5) quotes two almost identical halachot requiring the elimination of various nations. The first halacha refers to the obligation to wipe out the seven Canaanite nations who inhabited Eretz Yisrael prior to the arrival of Am Yisrael. The second Halacha commands us to wipe out Amalek. While Rambam employs similar language in both, he adds the qualifying statement “U’Kvar avad zichram” (and their memory has already been obliterated) to the law pertaining to the seven nations. According to Radvaz the phrase “U’Kvar avad zichram” is referring to the Mishna in Yadayim (4:5) which posits that Sancherev, the king of ancient Ashur, scattered the Near Eastern nations across his empire. We therefore can not trace the genealogy of ancient nations. This lack of identity creates a situation where destroying specific nations mentioned in Tanach is no longer relevant. Surprisingly, this phrase is conspicuous in its absence in the halacha regarding Amalek.
The Rav quotes Rav Chaim as explaining that Rambam omits the phrase “U’Kvar avad zichram” from the halacha referencing Amalek because we are still obligated to destroy Amalek. But how can we have such an obligation if we don’t know who Amalek is and that he has therefore in fact been destroyed? Rather, we are obligated to confront and obliterate those who espouse the ideology of Amalek.
The Rav then explains how we can identify that ideology. Bnei Yisrael has, throughout its long history, learned that man is not only capable of reflecting divine values. All too often we see that man is also capable of incarnating evil. This is a particularly difficult lesson for us, as we have assimilated the idea that man is created “b’tselem Elokim”. It is particularly traumatic to discover that man has the capacity to corrupt himself and essentially obliterate his tselem Elokim. This, says the Rav, is one of the first messages of Purim, and it is a message which continues to haunt us to this day. And this is the nature of Amalek, not a nation but an archetype that has developed immorality and evil to an accepted norm. Moreover, says the Rav, this archetype always targets the Jews. There is no rational explanation for anti-Semitism, but it exists nonetheless. Furthermore, this hatred can easily morph into cataclysmic spasms of violence, as we have seen throughout a history scarred with crusades, pogroms and Holocaust. And the target of that murderous violence is all Jews, regardless of their level of religious observance.
It is interesting to note that while most Rishonim rule that the mitzvah of wiping out Amalek is not incumbent on individuals but is reserved for the national collective as represented by a king, the Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 604) posits that it is incumbent upon each individual to fulfill the mitzvah. One need not adopt the position of the Chinuch to absorb the message. It is our responsibility to confront evil and anti-Semitism wherever it appears. On the internet, on college campuses or in the media, we are under constant onslaught. As I write these words the Fogel family is sitting shiva for their loved ones who were brutally slaughtered in their sleep. Yet CNN can report it as a so called “terror attack” (their italics), as if there is any doubt as to the motivation of their murderers. Palestinian sources are granted credibility when they suggest that Thai workers were the perpetrators. The legitimacy of our right to our homeland is consistently questioned. It is not enough to trust our government, in its role as “king” to confront those who would de- legitimize, depose and eliminate us. In the words of the Chinuch, it is incumbent on each of us.
Rav Michael Susman