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Friday, 24 August, 2018 - 11:47 am

A Russian army unit ran out of ammunition but was still under attack. “Take out your bayonets,” the corporal said, “and we will engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.”

“Please, sir,” said Private Finkelstein. “Show me, my man. Maybe he and I can reach some kind of agreement.”

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, relates a difficult law:

Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt… You shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.

How can we make sense of the fact that G-d commanded the Jews to “erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens,” including each member of the Amalekite nation? How can we, a humane, civilized people, ascribe our allegiance to a Torah that welcomes genocide—especially as a nation who heard "Thou shalt not murder" from the mouth of G-d at Sinai, and who is founded on the truth articulated in Genesis, that “every human is created in the image of the Divine!”

These questions are not practical. All ancient nations have assimilated or disappeared. We can no longer identify the ancient nation; this law is presently null. Yet the questions still persist on the very notion that the Torah teaches it. 

King Saul, whom our sages say was unblemished by sin, had difficulty with this particular Mitzvah. Saul was told by the prophet Samuel to destroy the people of Amalek. Out of compassion for their leader Agag, he spared his life, as well as those of their cattle and sheep. The following morning, Samuel informed him that the kingdom would be taken from him, and he, Samuel, executed Agag.

Generations later, the episode recurred, with a similar potential for error. This time, the people met their duties.

During the fateful meal when Queen Esther informed Achashverosh that Haman had plotted to annihilate the entire Jewish nation, the Megillah relates how “the king arose in his fury and went into the palace garden; and Haman remained to beg Queen Esther for his life, for he saw that evil was fully determined against him by the king.” When the king returned, he had Haman hanged, and subsequently, the Jewish people were saved.

Haman’s pleading with the queen for his life was not just a detail of the story; it had historic significance.

Earlier in the story, when Mordechai pleaded with Esther to intervene to the king on the Jews’ behalf, he expressed himself thus: “If you remain silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish.”

But why would Esther’s “silence” at this time cause her father’s house to perish?

Rabbi Moshe Alshich explains that Esther, like Mordechai, of the tribe of Benjamin, were descendants of King Saul who failed to destroy the entire people of Amalek. The next morning, the prophet Samuel admonished Saul for not meticulously following the Divine directions, and killed Agag himself. The Talmud relates that during the night preceding his execution, Agag cohabited with a maid who later gave birth to the ancestor of Haman.

Mordechai reminded Esther that bringing about Haman’s downfall would remove the blemish on King Saul, caused by his misplaced compassion. Should the salvation of the Jews come about through other means, her father’s house would spiritually perish due to King Saul’s tragic error.

As a direct continuum to this episode, Haman pled to Esther for mercy, similar to Agag pleading to Saul. When Esther refused Haman’s pleas, unready to yield to his compassion-evoking tears, the queen rectified her ancestor’s unfortunate mistake.

Yet, how can we explain this commandment to kill all the Amalekites? What was so terrible about Saul professing an exaggerated amount of sensitivity to human life?

The Talmud relates a moving episode about the author of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehuda the Prince. Since he did not show adequate compassion for a calf led to slaughter, he suffered years of painful ill health. Did Saul need to forfeit his kingdom, and ultimately his life, for displaying some extra compassion toward another leader?

The following is based on a letter by the Rebbe. What is the proper treatment of an Amalekite who lives a moral life, or who converts to Judaism? Is he, because of his birth, still slated for annihilation, or is his new identity the deciding factor? Is the issue a purely racial question, or are other factors equally or even more important? Can an Amalekite lose the status of "Amalek," and no longer be identified as Amalek?  The Talmud gives us a clear answer:

“Descendants of Haman learned Torah in B'nai Brak….”

Haman was an Amalekite. If a descendant of Amalek cannot convert, how can the Talmud declare that these Amalekites learned Torah, in a way which indicates their having joined the Jewish people?

Maimonides said: “All non-Jews whom convert and accept all the commandments... are like Jews for all matters....” The inference seems quite clear: The option of conversion is open to the erstwhile Amalekite.

The tradition in the Talmud that former Amalekites studied Torah in B'nai Brak has a fascinating post-script. Who is the Talmud referring to in this passage?

The Ein Ya'akov cites that the descendant was the great Talmudic sage Rav Shmuel bar Shilat. Other sources identify the descendant as none other than Rabbi Akiva!

An Amalekite can embrace the edicts of morality, known as the Seven Noachide laws, and he will not be touched. But what about all other members of Amalek? How about the children? Must they be killed? Is this not immoral?

The question itself implies that we accept that there is a G-d who, at some point, communicated His blueprint for life to us people via the Torah. If we don’t accept as a premise that the Torah is a Divine document, then the entire question is futile, because that would mean that a human being, not G-d, commanded the Jews to wipe out Amalek. Humans, we know, can invent evil ideas, so if the author of the Torah was human, it is not surprising that he might come up with an absurd and horrific law.

If we accept the Torah as Divine, then it is a document of unequivocal Truth. We must then conclude that facts recounted in the Torah are true. Again, anyone can doubt this, but then there would be no questions about Amalek.

If we study the facts in the Torah about the original Jewish war against Amalek, there are astounding details.

The Amalekites attacked the Israelites when they were “weary and weak” and focused their assault on those who were “lagging behind.” Those who are weak and lagging behind pose no danger. So why did they attack them?

Let’s reflect on this. For decades, Jews experienced savage suffering and horrendous torture under the cruel hands of their Egyptian masters. There, the blood of slaughtered Jewish children was used for Pharaoh’s baths; the bodies of Jewish youths were substituted for bricks and mortar; Jewish infants were torn from their mother’s arms and plunged into the river–not so different from what we experienced 75 years ago by the hands of the Germans.

After undergoing all this unspeakable pain and horror, this poor and devastated nation was finally liberated from their massive Egyptian concentration camp and embarked on a journey into a barren desert. No sooner than four weeks after their liberation, in which most did not even make it out of deathly Egypt, Amalek suddenly appeared out of the woodwork to deliver the final blow. Amalek had not been threatened in any way, had not been provoked, and stood to gain little from wiping out a nomadic people in the desert. The Jews did not enter their territory and did not attempt to settle in their domain. All other nations who fought the Jews, as recorded in the Torah, had at least some rationale in their minds. Pharaoh was fearful the Jews would take over. Edom, Moab, Midian, Sichon, and Og feared being conquered by the Jews, as they were journeying in the desert nearby.

But why would Amalek do this? If there was nothing to gain, or to fear, why hate and kill the Jews?

Great question… but a foolish one. Amalek has irrational, groundless hate. It is mad, insane, deep animosity, not rooted in logic or fact. It has no “why.” The Jews did nothing, nothing, to deserve this; nothing that could be “perceived” as threatening. It was pure hate.

Therefore, it may never go away. Irrational hate is durable and persistent. The hatred symbolized by Amalek lasts “for all generations.” All one can do is remember, and not forget, be constantly vigilant, and fight it whenever and wherever it appears.

This narrative grants us a glimpse into the nature of the Amalekite nation. G-d, who is omniscient, communicated to the Jewish people that the seed of Amalek is inherently cruel, disposed to the most barbaric and inhumane of behaviors. Such a brutal and murderous people, G-d tells the Jews, has no place in human society.

Every Amalekite, even an infant nursing his or her mother’s milk, is infused with an irrational hatred of the Jewish people. He or she will grow up as a danger to society. This is not a suspicion or apprehension; it is an absolute certainty. A human being can obviously not make such a claim, but the Creator of mankind and human nature can make such a claim and has done so concerning the people of Amalek.

So, like every other Mitzvah in the Torah, this one too was given to safeguard human life, and to create a moral society, which has always been the greatest ideal in Judaism. It comes not from indifference to Jewish life, but due to extra sensitivity to the sanctity of Jewish life.

When Iran or ISIS calls for genocide, it stems from the lack of respect for human life. It makes its adherents bloodthirsty. This has not happened to our people. Why not? Because this Mitzvah stems from a hypersensitivity to the sanctity of every human life.

Amalek does not die. But neither does the Jewish people. Attacked so many times over the centuries, it still lives, giving testimony to the victory of the G-d of love over the myths and madness of hate.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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