The Evil Within
When the Torah commands us to eradicate Amalek, it is really asking us to recognize our own potential for evil
The Torah is obsessed with memory. Again and again, we are commanded to remember our experiences and to act in ways that honor those memories.
Most famously, the Torah enjoins us repeatedly to remember that we were slaves in the Land of Egypt and that God liberated us from slavery. Much of the Torah is an attempt to discern the implications of that experience: We were slaves and know the bitter taste of estrangement and degradation, therefore we set out to create a society in which no one is estranged or degraded. Jewish memory is thus the source of Jewish ethical passion. The culmination of Jewish ethics is the commandment to "love the stranger" (Leviticus 19:34) because we ourselves "know the feelings of the stranger" (Exodus 23:9).
But the Exodus is not the only story we are enjoined to remember. At the end of this week's portion, we read a passage also recited on the Shabbat before Purim. This time, we are called upon to remember the horrific behavior of the Amalekites:
"Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt--how, not fearing God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear" (Deuteronomy 25: 17-18).
Here, too, memory has a consequence, this one ostensibly much different in tone from the mandate to love the stranger:
"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 a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" (Deuteronomy 25: 19).
In the Jewish imagination, Amalek is the quintessence of evil, and if we read these verses carefully, we can begin to see why. Imagine a people dehumanized and enslaved for literally hundreds of years, a people who have all but abandoned hope of ever experiencing freedom and liberation. Finally, after generations of unmitigated suffering, God frees them, and they take their first very tentative steps toward freedom. And what happens? Another nation, utterly devoid of compassion, mercilessly attacks.
It is an act of terrifying cruelty to attack a people who have known only sorrow and degradation for so long, a people exhausted in both body and spirit. But it is an act of unimaginable barbarism to attack precisely that part of the vulnerable people that is most vulnerable--the "stragglers in [the] rear."
The biblical text is exquisitely careful here to make these two critical points: First, that Amalek attacks Israel just as Israel first tastes the possibility of freedom; and second, that it attacks the weakest among an already weak people. This is the ultimate nadir of human behavior: There is no greater sin than attacking the utterly defenseless. To act in such an egregiously degrading way is to betray, as our text says, an utter lack of "fear of God."
But if we read closely, we come upon a magnificent textual ambiguity (which is clear in the Hebrew, but difficult to capture in translation). In describing the scenario under which Amalek attacks Israel, the text tells us that one of the parties "did not fear God" (velo yerei e-lohim
). This phrase is usually (as in the translation offered above) taken to refer to Amalek: Amalek is undeterred by fear of God, so it allows itself acts of unspeakable savagery. But it can just as easily be understood to refer to Israel-- it is Israel who fails to fear God in our story. How so? If Amalek is able to attack the stragglers in the rear, then somehow the weak and exhausted have been left vulnerable and exposed.
The Jewish people have just experienced the Exodus, the fundamental lesson of which is to love and protect the vulnerable--and here is a segment of the people left totally unprotected and exposed to violent danger. So neither Amalek nor Israel seems to truly fear God: The one because it attacks the weak, the other because it fails to protect them.