“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt,” (Devarim 25: 17).
Parshat Ki Teitzei is filled with mitzvot, 74 to be exact, the most in any single parsha in the entire Torah. And of all of them, the last one, the mitzvah to annihilate the nation of Amalek, may be the most troubling.
In the Book of Proverbs, King Solomon teaches us that all the Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are paths of peace. Yet here the Torah commands Israel to wipe out an entire nation, men, women, and children. How can we understand such a seemingly cruel dictate, even if it does not apply today?
First, let’s look at Moshe’s brief but revealing retelling of the battle with Amalek:
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear” (Devarim 25: 17-18).
After Am Yisrael walked out of Egypt through the Reed Sea, and the initial excitement of victory and freedom started to wane, the physical aches and pains, as well as the psychological damage of slavery, started to creep back into their bodies and into their consciousness. Even with the clouds of glory protecting them, the desert was not a forgiving place, especially for the young, the elderly and the infirm. The young and strong led the way, but there were many who lagged behind, unable to keep pace.
Suddenly, there was a surprise attack from the rear. Today in what we would call a guerilla ambush, a small group of militants attacked the weakest and most vulnerable targets at the rear. Moshe quickly appoints Yehoshua to mount a counterattack, and the larger army is eventually victorious. But the losses from the most helpless weigh heavily on the hearts of the nation.
The question is why? Why would the small nation of Amalek instigate a war against a much larger nation who just left Egypt through revealed miracles? The attack defies logic!
And that is exactly what makes Amalek’s attack so problematic. They did not attack out of fear of being conquered. They did not assume victory over the much larger Nation of Israel. There was no logical rhyme or reason for their attack. They acted simply out of ideological hate for Am Yisrael. And though we have experienced this ideological hatred throughout our history, this incident marks the first time we meet such an enemy, and therefore it is categorized as the prototypical anti-Semitic attack.
The nature of this attack warrants a strong response; the mitzvah is removing all remnants of Amalek from the world:
“Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget” (Devarim 25: 19).
Here we are presented with a serious ethical question. If the problem with Amalek’s raid was ideological, then if Amalek decides to reject this baseless hatred of Am Yisrael, then there should be an exception to the law.
Indeed, this is how the Rambam understands the issue in the Mishneh Torah in the Laws of Kings and Kingship. He explains that If Amalek accepts Am Yisrael’s call for peace and agrees to live in accordance with the seven Noahide laws, then the mitzvah of waging war with them falls away.
In other words, once Amalek abandons their destructive ideology, and lives according to basic ethical precepts, Am Yisrael is no longer commanded to destroy them.
Therefore the war is not against the people of Amalek per se, but against the ideology of baseless hatred, because of the murderous acts it produces against us. To our great pain, over the last 2,000 years, nations and individuals have picked up the mantle of Amelek’s initial act and the evil ideology that encouraged it. Maybe for this reason we are additionally commanded to remember Amalek’s actions, despite the fact that the mitzvah of destroying Amalek is no longer applicable.
The great rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Kolonomous Kalman Shapiro, who ultimately met his end in Treblinka in 1942, witnessed the most terrifying manifestation of Amalek that Am Yisrael has known. In his work Aish Kodesh, he explains the power of Amalek as ideological manipulation, or as we would call it today, narrative warfare.
The rebbe teaches that a person can be filled with wisdom and knowledge, yet he can wield those ideas to arouse support for the most sickening causes, even theft and murder. Amalek’s power is their ability to weaponize ideology, to turn criminals into heroes and victims into oppressors. Unfortunately, this is a tactic that we see is still being utilized by our enemies to this very day. And so we are commanded to remember Amalek, to hold a place in our memories for the existence of irrational anti-Semitism, and the task to destroy this murderous ideology from the world.
What do you think? In what ways can we see the ideology of Amalek still present today? And how can we work to defeat it?
Dedicated to the complete healing of Itza bat Goldie
Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.