While the entire Torah is read from cover to cover over the course of one year, there are only a few verses that we are formally obligated to hear. These include the last three verses of the Portion of Ki Tetze that levy a requirement to remember a war waged upon the Jewish People by the tribe of Amalek immediately after the Egyptian exodus. Amalek jumped the Jewish People in a surprise attack and were defeated only when Moshe, standing on a mountaintop, raised his arms skywards, reminding his people that wars are won and lost only with Divine Assistance. The commandment to remember Amalek reads as follows [Devarim 25:17-19]: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of G-d, he surprised you on the road, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when G-d grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that G-d is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
Rabbi Yisrael Yitzchak (Yish”ai) Chasida, who lived in Israel in the previous century, senses a contrast between Amalek’s attack and Israel’s eventual retribution. In two separate verses the Torah explicitly notes that Amalek attacked the Jewish People while they were “on the road”. In contrast, retribution will not be achieved until the Jewish People are no longer in transit and have settled the Land of Israel. Rabbis Chasida does not explain why this is so, leaving us little choice but to pave our own path.
Before addressing Rabbi Chasida’s concerns, we will add some more fuel to the fire. In the description of Amalek’s attack, the Torah tells us [Shemot 17:8] “Amalek came (Va’yavo) and fought with Israel at Refidim”. What is the importance of Amalek “coming”? Why does the story not simply begin with the words “Amalek fought (Va’yilachem) with Israel”. And from where exactly did Amalek come? In the next verse, Moshe commands Joshua to cobble together an army and to [Shemot 17:9] “go out (tzeh) and do battle with Amalek”. From where should Joshua “go out”? Why does Moshe not simply command Joshua to “do battle” (hilachem ) with them or to smite them (ha’keh ta’keh)?
Little imagination is required to note the similarity in the tension between “coming” versus “going” in the story of war against Amalek and between “on the road” versus “at home” in the commandment to obliterate them. To better understand this tension, we turn to the explanation of Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, known as the Malbim, who lived in the Ukraine in the 19th century. The Malbim analyses the geopolitical considerations that might entice one nation to attack another. What, asks the Malbim, is considered casus belli? The Malbim considers five valid root causes of war:
- The capture of land and its resources
- The deterrence of an enemy from attacking
- The return of fire in a counter-attack
- The show of force
- The furthering of the spread of a particular religion or dogma
None of these causes apply to Amalek. His attack was unprovoked and unwarranted. The Jewish People did not pose a credible threat. They owned no land. Amalek had nothing to gain, politically or religiously. According to the Malbim, Amalek’s attack was spurred by one of two reasons: An overwhelming hatred of either G-d or of the Jewish People. I suggest that there is another reason: Amalek attacked the Jewish People merely because he could.
After the Egyptian exodus, the Jewish People spend forty years wandering “on the road” in the desert, slowly making their way to the Land of Israel. In the desert, they maintain a defensive posture. Over three million people are encamped in a tightly-packed square-shaped ghetto, as it were, of about twelve-by-twelve kilometers. As far as Amalek is concerned, the Jewish People are sitting ducks. They have no forward reconnaissance and no lines of replenishment for their supplies. They are alone and outgunned. When Amalek attacks the Jewish People, they breach the outer walls of the camp and “come in”. Conversely, when the Jewish People counterattack, they must “go out” from the safety of the camp to “do battle with Amalek”. The commandment to destroy Amalek, on the other hand, is given to a nation that is finally settled within secure borders, “when G-d grants you safety from all your enemies”. This nation now possess all the assets required to defend herself against any threat.
Rabbi Eliyahu Zini, the Headmaster (Rosh Yeshiva) of the Or Vishua Yeshiva in Haifa and the rabbi of the Technion during my tenure there, taught us that Amalek was more than just a nomadic tribal nation that lived three thousand years ago. Amalek is a conceptual sort of “meta-nation” that exists beyond time and place. Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, who lived in Europe and in the U.S. in the previous century, asserts that any nation that sets out to destroy the Jewish People ipso facto attains the identity of Amalek. Perhaps we can add another layer to Rabbi Soloveichik’s classification. The desert in which the Jewish People wandered after the exodus is a metaphor for exile. The survival of the Jewish People during these forty years is archetypical for Jewish survival in exile. In the desert, to survive the elements we live in enclaves. We have our own community centres and our own organizations. In the desert, we are dependent upon the good graces and caprices of our often fickle hosts. Our safety is tenuous. In the desert, we must always be on the lookout for Amalek.
The recent resurgence of antisemitism around the world, in general, and in North America, in particular, has become a prevalent topic of conversation here in Israel, particularly in its relevance to the immigration, or the lack of immigration, of American Jews to Israel. Ben Shapiro, a popular American political pundit who is neoconservative and unabashedly pro-Israel as well as a religious Jew, recently visited Israel and was interviewed by Amit Segal, a popular Israeli political pundit and a religious Jew, himself. Segal asked Shapiro point blank why he did not immigrate to Israel and Shapiro answered, “Jews should live where they can be a light to the nations, and… living in the United States is a point of morality for me”. His answer served as fodder for conversations around the Shabbat table. Shapiro’s overt call for continued Jewish existence in North America is deeply troubling for many Israelis because through the G-d’s beneficence, we finally have the land of our own that He promised us. We no longer need to live in the shadow of Amalek – if we so choose.
Immediately after the directive to destroy Amalek, the Torah commands us to tithe the first fruits (Bikkurim) of our land [Devarim 26:2]: “You shall come to the priest… and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before G-d that I have come to the land that G-d swore to our fathers to grant us.” As a sovereign nation, living in the land that G-d swore to Abraham 3,500 years ago, we do the coming and our enemies do the going. We have the tools to protect ourselves. We choose the time and the place of the next attack. When Amalek remains by himself in the desert, he will, with the Help of G-d, surely be defeated, speedily in our days.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.
 See the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [3:8].
 My wife, Tov, suggests that Amalek came from Massah and Meriva, mentioned in the previous episode, in which Moshe hits a rock and brings water to the Sinai Desert. According to this explanation, Amalek attacked the Jewish People because they laid claim to the water source.
 The Jewish People numbered about 600,000 men between the ages of twenty and sixty. Adding women, children, and the aged, 3,000,000 people is a good estimate for the total population.
 The Tanach explicitly describes three separate incidents in which Amalek is completely destroyed and yet each time they return to attack the Jewish People once again.