PARSHAT KI TEITZE (Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19)
Efrat, Israel – “…you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; you must not forget.” (Deuteronomy 25:19)
Earlier this week, the world commemorated the 15th anniversary of the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11. Since 2001, Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda have been eclipsed by an even more extreme, barbaric entity, the so-called “Islamic State”. In this age of ISIS — which, despite significant losses on the battlefield, has members and those who have sworn allegiance ready to act throughout Europe and the United States – how can we rid the world of terrorist ideologies fueled by raging hatred and unspeakable acts of cruelty?
We are especially attuned to this question during the introspective weeks prior to the Days of Awe, as we declare in our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers: “All evil — in its entirety — shall disappear as a cloud, for You shall eliminate the wicked regime from the earth.”
Bridging the significant gap between reality and this ideal is complicated by the fact that while we must make every effort to utterly defeat these enemies militarily, the ideology that inspires terrorism outlives the terrorists that we liquidate.
Thus, terrorism presents us all not only with an immediate-term military crisis, but also with a long-term ideological battle, and the harsh fact is, there is no exclusively military solution to an ideological war.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitze, addresses this issue directly, when it commands us to “obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.” One can obliterate an army. But how are we to obliterate a memory?
Our Sages teach that our objective in this war of ideologies must be nothing less than the transformation – and eventual redemption – of evil, in which the evil one repents from his evil and accepts, at least, the Seven Noahide Laws. We are to obliterate the memory of Amalek by making Amalek repent and accept the God of peace and morality.
Examples of this approach can be found in the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin (99b), where the Sages describe the genesis of Amalek — the child born to Timna from Elifaz, the son of Esau — as having occurred because neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob had been willing to convert Timna when she came before each of them requesting conversion. Thus says the Talmud, they should have accepted her into the faith.
Furthermore, Sanhedrin 96b teaches that the descendants of Haman (the Aggagi, the Amaleki) taught Torah in B’nei Brak. Some versions of the text include the words, “And who was this [descendant of Haman]? Rabbi Akiva!” (Rabbi Akiva was the rabbi of B’nei Brak.)
These sources make it clear that even Amalek and its ideology of evil can be redeemed.
Let us be clear: as long as Amalek is out to destroy us physically, we must destroy it, as our Sages teach, “If someone comes to kill you, kill him first.” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 21:4)
At the same time, the Torah commands us to teach the world the radical lesson that the basis for society must be compassionate righteousness and moral justice (Genesis 12:3;18:18-19). This is a clear and direct refutation of the ideology of Amalek, in which society is defined by martyrdom, domination of the weak, and terror.
Thus, the charge we received from God at Sinai to be “a kingdom of priests-teachers and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), is, according to Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, not merely descriptive, but prescriptive: we have a mandate to teach humanity the importance of compassion and peace.
This is why it is critical to internalize the main theme of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: that God’s sovereignty be manifest throughout the world, as the Machzor proclaims:
“…May all who have been made know that You made them, and may all who have been formed understand that You formed them. And may all who breathe declare: ‘Hashem, the God of Israel is King, and may His Kingship have dominion over all!’”
These hopes for humanity find expression in Jewish Law, which does not wait for the world to come to this awakening on its own. Maimonides rules: “Moses commanded — through God — to coerce humanity to accept all of the Noahide commandments” (Hilkhot Melakhim 8:10). In the present world, we need not convert the world to Judaism, but we are to proactively ensure that, minimally, a certain level of morality exists in society.
Eventually, in the days of the messiah, Maimonides writes, humanity will “return to the true religion” (ibid., 12:1). At that time, the nations of the world will abandon the ideology of Amalek for the ideology of the Torah, and thus, murder and hatred will be overcome by compassion, righteousness, morality and justice. It is for precisely such a world that we truly pray fervently every Rosh Hashanah. May our actions this year bring us closer to that reality.