The Jewish people don’t seek to enter the land of Israel simply for the sake of national safe refuge. If that were the case, then when their conquest was finished and their borders secured, there would be no more need for war. But the Jewish national project is about an idea. After Moshe has spent the last chapters detailing the practical application of this idea as a vision for society, Chapter 25 presents us with the antithesis of the vision- Amalek. When all the wars of conquest are finished, the Jews must wage a last battle of ideology, to eradicate the idea of Amalek from the world.
But this battle holds a deep paradox. Amalek’s wickedness is epitomized by their tactic of attacking the weak and helpless at the margins of society. The ideal society outlined by Moshe is one defined, more than anything, by its empathy and caring, especially for the weakest members of society. It is a society of the highest standards of justice, but that justice is tempered by mercy when relating to the disadvantaged. So, on the one hand, it makes perfect sense that we need to completely eliminate the Amalekite ideology. But, how can we do that without compromising the values we’re fighting for? How can we destroy Amalek- men, women, children- without becoming Amalek?
It could be that there is no real-world resolution to this paradox. In our first battle against Amalek, according to the Midrash, Yehoshua is told only to kill the strongest, to leave even the weaker soldiers alive. The values that animate the war win out over the need to fight it to the finish. When it’s King Shaul’s turn, the instructions have changed, and no mercy is to be shown. Despite this, the Jews feel compelled to have mercy, but in the absence of guidelines allowing them to do so appropriately, their mercy is corrupted by self-interest. The weak and defenseless are slaughtered. They “have mercy” only on the booty, and Shaul spares his fellow king.
Ultimately, historical circumstance and rabbinical sensibilities take the literal fulfillment of this command out of the realm of possibility, thus redeeming it from paradox. Stripped of its genocidal dimensions, the ideological battle against the oppression of the weak can, and must, remain a powerful element of our national project, an objective that we are commanded never to forget.
This is a nearly daily blog of my reflections on the chapter of Tanach a day along with the fabulous 929 project. Learn more about the project at 929.org.il