“Eternal Vigilance” Parashat Vayikra — Zachor 5776

Last week, my good friend and cousin, Rabbi Erez Sherman, sent me an article from the New York Post and asked me for my take. Here is a snippet from the article:

Iran reportedly test-fired two ballistic missiles Wednesday with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” written in Hebrew on them, a show of force by the Islamic Republic as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel. Such phrases have been emblazoned on missiles fired before by Iran, but this test comes as the country recently signed a nuclear deal with world powers, including America, and conducted another test the day before. Hard-liners in Iran’s military have fired rockets and missiles despite U.S. objections since the deal, as well as shown underground missile bases on state television.

Here is my take: As this Shabbat is the Shabbat before Purim, we will be reading Parashat Zachor, the last three verses from Parashat Ki Tetze. These verses include the commandment to remember how the nation of Amalek attacked Am Yisrael as they left Egypt and the commandment to “blot out their memory.” Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel from Apt, better known as the “Apter Rebbe,” compares the commandment to remember Amalek’s attack with other commandments in the Torah that require us to “remember”, including Shabbat and the Revelation at Sinai[1].

The Talmud in Tractate Beitza [16a] describes how the sage Shamai would prepare for Shabbat. Whenever he would find something special, say a nice bottle of wine, he would set it aside for Shabbat. Whenever he would find something even more special, say a nicer bottle of wine, he would replace the old bottle with the new one, and set it aside for Shabbat. The upshot is that Shamai would “remember” Shabbat by keeping it in mind twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He was always looking out for Shabbat.

In a similar vein, says the Apter Rebbe, we must remember the Revelation at Sinai. Learning Torah is not something that we should do in our pyjamas while eating peanuts. Each time we open a chumash or a Talmud to learn we must imagine ourselves standing at the foot of the mountain, surrounded by smoke, thunder and lightning, literally fearing for our very lives. We must study with the same kind of fear and trembling with which we received the Torah. We do not relegate remembering the receiving of the Torah at Sinai to the holiday of Shavuot. We must remember it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Apter Rebbe concludes that remembering Amalek is not something to be relegated to a yearly Torah reading. It is something that should be on our minds constantly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The question is: Why is Amalek so special? During their forty-year sojourn in the desert, Am Yisrael waged war with five different armies: the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Amorites, the Bashanites, and the Midianites. And yet we are commanded to blot out the memory of only the Amalekites. Why is their war different from all other wars?

Let’s take a closer look at these wars, specifically the casus belli. The war against the Egyptians was a War of Independence, waged by Hashem in proxy for Am Yisrael. The war against the Amorites and Bashanites was a war of territory — these two nations attacked Am Yisrael to prevent them from capturing their territory. The war against Midian was waged by Am Yisrael in order to avenge the deaths of twenty-four thousand Jewish men who were seduced into idolatry by Midianite women. To summarize, the Egyptians fought for economical reasons, the Amorites and the Bashanites for territorial claims, and the Midianites for religious reasons.

What about Amalek? What was their casus belli? What did they hope to achieve by military means? The answer, in short, is absolutely nothing. They did not attack in order to defend their territory — they didn’t live anywhere near where the battle took place[2]. They did not attack in order to capture property or to take slaves. And they did not attack for spiritual reasons. Amalek never even intended on winning the war — they only attacked the flank, zeroing in on the old, the young, and the stragglers. All they wanted was to draw blood. Amalek attacked out of sheer visceral hatred. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose, and yet they still chose violence. It is this unadulterated hatred that we are commanded to remember.

There is an interesting difference of opinion as to whether or not women are obligated to remember what Amalek did[3]. The reason that they might not be obligated is because remembering Amalek is part and parcel of blotting out their memory, an action that must be performed using military might. As women are exempt from serving in the military, they should be likewise exempt from remembering what Amalek did. Indeed, this is the ruling of the Sefer HaChinuch, a compendium of the mitzvot written by an unknown author. The Rambam disagrees with the Sefer HaChinuch, ruling [Hilchot Melachim 5:5] that women are obligated in the performance of the mitzvah just as men are. Rav Yossef Babad, writing in the Minchat Chinuch, a gloss on the Sefer HaChinuch, has great difficulty with the ruling of the Sefer HaChinuch. He posits that the mitzvah of remembering Amalek has nothing to do with war against Amalek — it is a mitzvah that requires no ensuing physical action. The question we must ask then is that if we are not going to leverage our remembering of Amalek for any kind of action, of what purpose is it?

The war against Amalek took place more than three thousand years ago. Man has progressed much since then, much of that progress taking place in the last hundred years: Slavery has been abolished. Women are no longer relegated to the kitchen and they are taking their rightful place in society. Racism and bigotry are on the decline. Or so we in the west would like to believe. Unfortunately, our vantage point is skewed. For the most part we are WEIRD — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Problems begin to happen when we assume that the rest of the world is as WEIRD as we are and when we assume that we can predict their response to a given stimulus.

We assume that if people are given large chunks of land then they will not break into houses to stab a young mother to death in front of her children. We assume that if crippling economic sanctions are removed then people will build their economy instead of frittering away their resources on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles built for the express purpose of carrying these weapons to large population centres thousands of miles away. We assume that people will teach their children to be just as WEIRD as we are. But not all people are WEIRD and not all people necessarily act in the way we assume they will.

We are commanded to remember the war against Amalek every day to remind ourselves again and again that there are people in this world who think very differently than we do. We must remember that there are people in the world today who will attack even when they do not stand to gain, even when they will more than likely die as a result[4]. We must never underestimate their desire to die, not for what they believe in, but to prevent others from living.

A quote often mistakenly attributed to Thomas Jefferson says that “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” The author Aldus Huxley added that “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; [it] is the price of human decency.” When we remember Amalek we remind ourselves that our definition of decency — the basic concepts of good and evil — is not universal. We must never let our guard down.

Shabbat Shalom and a freilich Purim,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya, and Yossef ben Bracha.

[1] Regarding Shabbat the Torah tells us [Shemot 20:7] “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy”. As for the Revelation at Sinai, we are commanded [Devarim 4:9-10]: “Beware and watch yourself well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw… the day you stood before Hashem at [Sinai]”.

[2] The Torah says [Shemot 17:8] “Amalek came”, ostensibly from afar.

[3] Practically, do they or don’t they have to go to shul to hear Parashat Zachor?

[4] As in the case of anyone who tries committing a terrorist act at the Gush Etzion traffic circle. The place is simply crawling with soldiers. Yet not a week goes by without some disgruntled terrorist trying to kill another father on his way to his son’s yeshiva to learn Torah with them like he does every week.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.