Regina Sandler-Phillips
Renewing ways of peace in a world on fire

Amalek: Wiping the Mirror Clean

Moses supported by Aaron and Hur, at war with Amalek | Detail of the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem by Benno Elkan (1956) | Photo by Tamar HaYardeni via Wikimedia Commons
Moses supported by Aaron and Hur, at war with Amalek | Detail of the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem by Benno Elkan (1956) | Photo by Tamar HaYardeni via Wikimedia Commons

Amalek has returned to media headlines. Through the agonies of the October 7th attacks and nearly 130 days of subsequent war, the archetypal enemy of the Jewish people has been invoked, parsed, and expounded by international human rights advocates as well as by Israeli government leadership.

Amalek is the ultimate Jewish personification of evil in a family member.

Family member? Yes. Amalek was a grandson of Esau, the vilified twin brother of Jacob/Israel. According to rabbinic tradition, Amalek’s mother Timna joined Esau’s family after she sought acceptance into the Israelite community but found herself rejected as well. (“They should not have rejected her,” the Talmud concedes.) The high-profile violence between Amalek and Israel is rooted in this lesser-known background of intimate family conflict and rejection.

In Exodus 17 we read that, shortly after the redemption from Egypt, the tribal descendants who collectively bear Amalek’s name “came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.” There is no mention of unprovoked aggression at this point. The chapter does describe the battle led by Joshua, with Aaron and Hur literally holding up Moses’ hands to assure Israelite victory. God then promises that “I will wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens.” Moses interprets this to mean a holy war through the generations. So do many subsequent commentators.

What did the Amalekites do that was so evil? Some commentators suggest that the Amalekites emboldened the Israelites’ other tribal enemies; they attacked at a time when no one else dared to do so. But our attention is primarily directed to how the story is retold later in Torah. Deuteronomy 25:17-18 makes an allegation that is curiously absent from the Exodus account. The text is equivocal, and can be translated literally as:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, in your going-out from Egypt. What befell you on the way, and he tailed you, all the weakened-ones behind you; and you, weary and exhausted — and not revering God.

There is general agreement that “and he tailed you, all the weakened-ones behind you” describes an attack on the most vulnerable at the rear. But the original Hebrew of verse 18 offers no pronoun to confirm exactly who was “not revering God.”

Both the Israelites and the Amalekites are referenced in the masculine singular, as Israel and Amalek. This means that either “you” or “he” would be grammatically correct as the pronoun. With the cantillation markings provided by later tradition, the literal Hebrew seems to point most directly to “you (Israelites), weary and exhausted — and not revering God.”

Yet virtually all published English translations of 25:18 insert another “he” to peg the Amalekites as the ones “not revering God.” The popular New JPS translation not only inserts the additional pronoun, but even switches around the sections of the verse to make its case.

Such interpretations follow the lead of medieval commentators like Abraham Ibn Ezra, who resolves the ambiguity by asserting that “‘not revering’ returns to Amalek, and functions in the past tense.” But Hizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoah) ventures an alternative understanding, grounded in more ancient rabbinic sources:

Others say: ‘…and not revering God’ — these are the Israelites, who had commandments and did not fulfill them; but if you had been ‘revering God’ Amalek could not have overwhelmed you.

When we look more closely at the original Hebrew narrative, we can also face a stark but vital question that conventional translations obscure:

What kind of leadership — what kind of people — leaves its most vulnerable members exposed to attack from behind?

This same question could be asked of the Israeli political and military leadership who failed to foresee or forestall the horrific October 7th attacks. Now waging an open-ended war with contradictory priorities and unclear strategies, that leadership continues to deflect accountability.

Israeli hostage and military deaths continue to rise, alongside Palestinian civilian deaths in both Gaza and the West Bank. Meanwhile, budget projections for this open-ended war indicate that the most vulnerable—including the most traumatized survivors of massacre—will be pushed back even further to the margins.

At this time of crisis, how can we practice reverence for all who are created in God’s image? We can “remember” that Jewish spiritual wisdom locates Amalek inside as well as outside ourselves. Hasidic master Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev approaches the challenges this way:

It seems…that every person of Israel needs to erase the evil part, called by the name of Amalek, hidden within one’s heart; that as long as the seed of Amalek is found in the world, since a human being is also a miniature world, so there are traces of Amalek in the evil power of every human being….‘and not revering God’: and by this you will ‘remember’ indeed, so the power of Amalek does not overwhelm you. And this is what is written ‘wipe-out’ the evil root from your heart, and suppress it under the good.

We cannot wipe out Amalek without wiping clean the mirror of awareness that allows us to see ourselves clearly. The internal Amalek is identified as our yetzer hara — our so-called evil inclination. Commonly understood as the natural selfish instinct with which we are born, our yetzer hara must be mindfully channeled for good. We cannot destroy it entirely without destroying ourselves in the process.

This truth is reflected in the words of one hostage family’s placard at the recent tent encampment outside the Prime Minister’s office:

We love our children more than we hate Hamas.

The texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy speak of wiping out the remembrance of Amalek. The texts that touch on questions of physical extermination and genocide come later in Torah, in the books of First Samuel and Esther. These will be explored in subsequent essays.

For now, we can face the mirror and ask how much we ourselves may be strengthening the hands of a leadership that continues to leave its people behind — and whether our words and silences, actions and inactions are weakening or strengthening the Amalek that we seek to wipe out.

About the Author
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips offers "How to Mourn AND Organize" programs through Ways of Peace Community Resources in Brooklyn, NY. She lived in Israel from 1989-1994, served in NYC leadership roles in the post-9/11 disaster relief, and coordinates an ongoing remote vigil for those lost to pandemics and wars. She sings in several languages.
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