The Evil Within

Print this page Print this page

Who Didn't Fear 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.

Like the Exodus story, the Amalek story comes with an obligation to act. This time we are not told--at least not explicitly--to learn compassion from our enemies' lack thereof, but rather to "blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven." Traditionally, this was read as a commandment to kill off the literal descendants of Amalek, a commandment that was, however, neutralized and rendered non-normative by the interpretations of later rabbis.

I want to suggest an alternative reading of this deeply troubling verse. Note the situation described: "When the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you" and allows you to settle securely in the Land of Israel. It is then that we are instructed to blot out Amalek's "memory."

What the Torah has in mind here, I think, is not that when we are powerful we should seek to kill an actual people who once tried to kill us; the Torah does not advocate meeting barbarism with barbarism, and certainly not meeting the grandchildren of barbarians with barbarism. (It is this week's portion, after all, that tells us in no uncertain terms that "Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents.")

A Society With No Amalek

Instead, the Torah tries to tell us here that when we are safe, secure, and powerful, we must take extreme care that we not reproduce the kind of moral callousness embodied by the biblical people of Amalek. To "blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" is to create a society in which it is unimaginable that the weak will be left exposed, let alone that the strong will actually attack them and inflict further harm. A society that takes seriously the God-bestowed dignity of every human being--regardless of her ability to bear arms or defend herself--is a society that stands as a direct counter-testimony to the evil represented by Amalek and thus helps to eliminate the savagery and inhumanity for which Amalek stands.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held, a noted lecturer and adult educator, is former Director of Education and Conservative Rabbinic Advisor at Harvard Hillel, and a graduate of the Wexner Fellowship program.