Shabbat Zachor Parshat Terumah
“…Timche et zeicher Amalek,” “You shall utterly obliterate the very mention of Amalek.”
The mitzvah given to Am Yisrael in the special maftir reading this week is one very difficult for 21st-century society to accept. Obliterate? Utterly destroy? It is not easy for today’s world to make peace with this command.
Perhaps even more difficult is the command given to Israel’s first king, a command we read in the special haftarah that is read this week: “And you shall defeat Amalek and destroy everything of his; do not pity him but kill man and woman child and infant…”
And although it is not for us to question Hashem’s commands nor His morality, we should nonetheless try to understand why such a directive was given to us by the Merciful and Just God.
I would suggest that much of our surprise—even shock—upon learning this mitzvah is based on the fact that we know of Amalek solely from the one episode that we read in the Torah. But the true character of that nation, and the danger it posed to a civilized and humane society, can be better understood by studying other Biblical episodes that reveal the evil nature of the Amalekite nation over the centuries.
The first “reveal” of the character of this nation is found in the story of their attack against the Bnei Yisrael: the attack that is condemned in this week’s maftir reading. Amalek dwelled (primarily) in the Negev area (Bamidbar 13:29) but attacked Israel when they were on their way to Har Sinai—not within the territory of Amalek. Furthermore, they attacked at a time when the stronger Israelites were traveling ahead of the rest of the nation, as they went to retrieve the water for their thirsty families and flocks, water that miraculously flowed from the rock at Chorev (see Shemot 17:6 and Devarim 9:21). Left behind, therefore, were the women, the children, the elderly and infirm, just as the text tells us in the maftir “…he struck the weakest on the rear while you were faint and exhausted.” The Torah also reports how the Amalekites joined with the Canaanites to attack the “Ma’apilim” (those who attempted to enter Israel against Hashem’s command) to keep them away from entering Eretz Yisrael (Bamidbar 14:45).
We then read in Sefer Shoftim of how these descendants of Eisav joined with the neighboring people of Moav to subjugate Israel (Shoftim 3:13), and later they joined Midian in despoiling and destroying the fields of Bnei Yisrael (ibid 6:3) and then in attacking Israel (ibid 6:33).
And perhaps most revealing is the story we read at the end of Shmuel A (perek 30). There we are told of the small band of men who joined David who was attempting to escape the pursuing Shaul. In his desperation, the yet-to-be king fled to Philistia where Achish, the king of Gat, afforded them refuge in the city of Tziklag. When David’s fighters left their settlement, a band of Amalekite warriors attacked the defenseless city, now occupied only by women and children. They took hundreds of captives as slaves and then celebrated their great “victory” that night.
This was Amalek. Not simply were they an enemy of Israel but an enemy who would join any other power seeking to challenge Israel’s right to her land. And beyond being a nemesis to our people, she was one who chose to attack the weak and defenseless. Whether they were the weak stragglers in the camp of Israel, the poor farmers in the tribe Menasheh or the defenseless families in the town of Tziklag, the “modus operandi” of this nation was to target the weak and innocent, the civilian population, and take what was not theirs to enrich themselves. Such behavior, callous, insensitive and immoral, is described by the Torah’s phrase “v’lo yirei Elokim,” “not God fearing.” It is used by Avraham Avinu to describe a people who would kill a man in order to take his wife (Bereishit 20; 11) and by Yosef HaTzaddik to explain why he would not imprison all of the brothers and deny them the possibility of bringing back food for their families “et HaElokim ani yarei” (Bereishit 42:18).
And it is used to describe Amalek.
The concept of “God fearing” did not mean a belief in one God but an acceptance of basic social behavior that was necessary in order to form a moral society.
But it was a belief not shared by Amalek.
And, despite the fact that hundreds of years had passed since their unprovoked attack against a peaceful nation, against tribes who had just recently been freed from hundreds of years of slavery, against a people that had no standing army nor any past military confrontation—despite all of the generations that had passed, the nature of Amalek had not changed; in fact, it had been reinforced generation after generation.
True. It is difficult to understand the severe punishment meted out to Amalek. Yet, perhaps it was the All-Knowing One Who understood that a moral world could not develop as long as such cruel and violent behavior is accepted in society.
It is a lesson given for all time, and perhaps especially for us today.
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.