The Maftir (additional Torah reading) for Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat immediately
before Purim, describes the tribe of Amalek's attack on the Israelites, not
long after they left Egypt:
The reading of this section on the Shabbat before Purim makes explicit the
traditional understanding, based on a textual inference, that Haman is a direct
descendent of Amalek. The juxtaposition of the biblical story of Amalek with
Megillat Esther leads us to understand the Purim story as a fulfillment of
the biblical command to wipe out Amalek.
Divrei Torah about Amalek often remind us of the moral imperative, rooted
in the Bible, to fight attacks on "stragglers" --- children, the elderly,
and others whom society leaves behind. Yet we cannot ignore the extent to
which, at various points in Jewish history, the command for perpetual war
against Amalek has been taken literally, as a justification for war against
a particular people.
In halakhic (Jewish legal) sources, the war against Amalek is classified
as a milh?emet mitzvah --- a war that we are commanded to fight. The
obligation is so important that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b) debates which of
two obligations --- that of destroying Amalek or that of building the Temple
--- will take priority when Jews eventually reconquer the land of Israel.
Another Talmudic text (Bava Batra 21b), commenting on a story in I Kings
11, explicitly faults Yoav, a servant of King David, for only killing the
male members of Edom, the nation from which Amalek is descended according
to Genesis. According to this source, Yoav misunderstands the command to wipe
out the memory (zekher) of Amalek as a command to wipe out the males
(zakhar) of Amalek. Upon learning of his mistake, Yoav threatens to
kill the teacher who failed to ensure that Yoav understood the correct pronunciation
Discussions about the nature of the command for perpetual war against Amalek
are not merely academic. Within the Purim story itself, the Jews appear to
understand the divine grace that brings about the fall of Haman as permission
for a large-scale massacre of an entire people, along the lines envisioned
in this week's maftir from Deuteronomy. Even more disturbingly, in
contemporary times, some Jews have characterized the Palestinians as modern-day
representations of Amalek. Last year, a prominent lawyer suggested that the
biblical imperative to wipe out Amalek allows the execution of families of
suicide bombers. It is no accident that Baruch Goldstein chose Purim for his
1994 massacre of Palestinians praying in a mosque. Defining the Palestinians
as Amalek has allowed some to justify any attack on this people.
Even as we reject out of hand the equation of Amalek with any contemporary
people, we are compelled to reinterpret the troubling commandment for perpetual
war against Amalek in such a way as to preclude using the text to incite violence.
We can begin by noticing the dichotomy between the command to attack Amalek
and the story of yetziat mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt), the context
in which this command first appears (Exodus 17:8-13). The primary lesson of
yetziat mitzrayim is that human beings have inherent dignity and therefore
should not be enslaved. In contrast, the commandment to fight Amalek and his
descendents suggests that certain people, by dint of their ancestry, are not
even worthy of life.
Perhaps in response to this ideological inconsistency, some Jewish sources,
particularly mystical and ch?asidic texts, read the fight against Amalek as
a metaphor for a fight against inner evils. One passage in the Zohar,
the central text of Jewish mysticism, understands Amalek as the "grave evil"
that leads to dissatisfaction with one's lot. Similarly, a number of chasidic
writers interpret Amalek as the yetzer hara --- the evil instinct within
each of us.
By defining the war against Amalek as an inward struggle, we simultaneously
rid ourselves of the dangers associated with identifying particular individuals
as Amalek and reconcile the seemingly opposite poles of yetziat mitzrayim
and milh?emet Amalek, the obligatory war against Amalek. As long as
milh?emet Amalek remains a war against a specific people, we cannot
respond fully to the call for human dignity that is the foundation the exodus
narrative. When we define the fight against Amalek as an inward struggle,
we redefine it as part of yetziat mitzrayim, and not in opposition
to yetziat mitzrayim.
In the context of the current conflict, we might define the fight against
Amalek as our internal Jewish fight against justifying the oppression of another
people, and as our attempt to guarantee that this people may live in dignity.
According to one midrash, God's throne remains incomplete until Amalek is
destroyed (P'sikta Rabati 12). In overcoming Amalek and restoring dignity
to all people, we can transform Israel --- and eventually, the world --- into
a place in which the divine presence is fully manifest.