Compassion for the cruel

This Shabbat I’ve been asked to give a dvar Torah. It’s political enough to also be a blog post.

This week’s parasha is Parashat Tetsaveh (Exodus 27.20-30.10), which deals mostly with the clothing worn by the Cohanim and the sacrificial ritual surrounding their ordination. There is plenty of interesting material here, but my regular readers will not be surprised that I want to talk about another aspect of this Shabbat.

It is Shabbat Zachor [“remember”], the Shabbat before Purim. And in addition to the regular portion,  we read a special one from Deuteronomy (25.17-19):

Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way when you were leaving Egypt, that he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God. It shall be when Hashem, your God, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that Hashem, your God, gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the Heaven — you shall not forget! [Artscroll tr.]

The special Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor (I Samuel 15.1-34) amplifies the message, telling the story of King Saul who, commanded to totally destroy Amalek — men, women, children, even animals — kept some of the nicer animals and failed to put the king, Agag, to death. For his disobedience, Saul lost his crown (and the prophet Samuel finished off Agag).

Now I do not think that Hashem wants us to wipe out the families of the enemies of Israel, men, women, children and animals. This is what he commanded Saul to do, specifically to the Amalekites. Today there’s no identifiable tribe of Amalek, although part of the commandment to remember Amalek is to be vigilant in defense of the nation of Israel against its enemies.

And many of them, throughout the ages, have been identified in Jewish tradition as Amalek. The Romans, Haman, Chmielnicki, Hitler, Stalin, Yasser Arafat and today Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all have been seen as manifestations (in the case of Haman “the Agagite”, a descendant) of Amalek.

Like The Joker, Amalek often reappeared after being apparently destroyed; somehow there were Amalekites left around after Joshua, Saul and David all defeated them and put them to the sword.

Although some like to talk about Amalek as a representation of evil influences inside us — as a spiritual enemy — it still, unfortunately, makes sense to think about the commandment in relation to our physical enemies. Let’s look more closely at it, specifically this:

…when Hashem, your God, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that Hashem, your God, gives you … you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek … you shall not forget!

The last part may seem contradictory — are we commanded to wipe out its memory or to remember it? The answer is both. When, finally, Israel is secure from ‘enemies all  around’, it will be possible to relax, to wipe out the memory of the persecutions, the Holocaust, the scuds, the Qassams and so forth. Then we can forget. But for now we must keep the memory of Amalek before us so that we will be better prepared to fight today’s enemies.

People ask why Jews are so obsessed with antisemitism and persecution, why are they so paranoid, always expecting another Holocaust (although now that Iran is about to get nuclear weapons they don’t ask so much). This is one reason: we are remembering Amalek.

The description of Amalek attacking the weak naturally strikes a chord with us. Isn’t this precisely the nature of terrorism, shrinking from combat with the IDF but murdering children? Who is Samir Kuntar if not an Amalekite?

The story of Saul’s battle with Amalek also has some contemporary lessons. Saul’s disobediance consisted of his failure to fully carry through with God’s command to destroy Amalek. Recently we have been in combat with Hezbollah and Hamas. Should we not have destroyed their armies and their ability to fight? Should we not have killed or captured their leaders? Obviously our situation is not identical with that of Saul, because we must not kill noncombatants or animals, but isn’t it parallel? Didn’t we fail in the same way?

And this, from Samuel:

Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, withdraw, descend from among the Amalekites lest I destroy you with them; for you performed kindness with all the Children of Israel when they went up from Egypt.” The Kenites withdrew from among Amalek.

One imagines Saul dropping leaflets on the Kenites, leaving messages on their cellphones.

Nevertheless, although today we are not fighting in order to  commit a genocide, although our methods are not those of our enemies, we are still required to remember what our enemies want to do to us — what Amalek wanted to do.

And we are commanded to fight to win, to not pull back, even though the task is disagreeable.

Y. Y. Jacobson, “When Love Becomes Evil, The Psychology of Gaza and Mumbai“, writes:

Because some people are so filled with hate, they are incapable of appreciating love. Concerning such people, the Talmud states [Berachot 58a], “He who comes to kill you, kill him first.” Or in the words of the Midrash [Kohelet Rabah 7:16], “He who shows compassion for the cruel, will end up being cruel to the compassionate.”

Update [6 Mar 2009 0857 PST]:

Some people didn’t understand the points I tried to make in this post, and I apologize for being unclear. Here’s a summary of what I was trying to say:

  • The injunction to remember Amalek does not mean that we should try to figure out who is Amalek today and wipe them out. There was a specific command by Hashem to a specific person — Saul — to wipe out a specific tribe, which does not exist today. We are never commanded to commit genocide, even if our enemies would like to do so.
  • Today the commandment is not to wipe anybody out, but to remember — until Israel is finally at peace, perhaps in the time of the Mashiach, at which point the memory can be wiped out — that there are forces that want to destroy Israel, and to oppose them vigorously.
  • Saul made a mistake, which is that he did not carry out Hashem’s commandment completely. Although we aren’t commanded to kill the families and animals of our enemies, we are commanded to destroy those who try to destroy us. This is the meaning of “remember Amalek” and “he who comes to kill you, kill him first.” If we don’t do this — as we failed to do in Lebanon in 2006 or in Gaza this year — then we are guilty of a mistake parallel to the one made by Saul.

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One Response to “Compassion for the cruel”

  1. ME says:

    This is not confusing. You are good at this.