Ki Tetze: The Amalek within ourselves

Ki Tetze: The Amalek within ourselves

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt — how undeterred by the fear of God he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 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 as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” Deuteronomy 25:17-19

These concluding words of our parsha are also read as the maftir on Shabbat Zachor the Sabbath preceding Purim. The connection between this Torah reading and Purim is that, according to rabbinic tradition, Haman is a descendant of Amalek.

The battle between Amalek and Israel and the command to wipe out this enemy is first mentioned in Exodus 17, where the home of the Amalekites is identified as a place called Rephidim, which is located somewhere close to Mt. Sinai. However, in Numbers 14 these Amalekites are described as dwelling in the Negev near the site of modern day Arad. In the Book of Judges, Amalek battles Israel in the Valley of Jezreel and in the Jordan valley, together with the Amonites and the Moabites. The Book of Esther seems to place the Amalekites in Persia. The Amalekites are also mentioned in the Abraham narratives in Genesis, and in the David and Saul narratives of First Samuel.

Who were the Amalekites? How could this one people, whom God commands Israel to wipe off the face of the earth, keep appearing in so many places generation after generation? Conversely, how could the Torah demand of us that we totally destroy an entire ethnic community? How could we exclude the Amalekites from the mitzvah found earlier in our torah reading this week in Deuteronomy 24:16 where we learn:

“Parents shall not be put to death for the transgressions of the children and the children shall not be put to death due to the transgressions of the Parents. Every person shall be put to death only for his own sin”

Moreover, How can we read these words just weeks before the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe and Repentance; a time where we are commanded not only to seek forgiveness from both God and our fellow man, but when we are also commanded to be forgiving of those who have wronged us? Another complication in identifying Amalekites is, that even though Amalekites are mentioned multiple times in the Bible, as a godless marauding tribe, that there is no mention of them in other Near East literature, or archeological sources.

In the early 1970s when Arab terrorism as manifest in places such as Munich and Maalot began to make many Jews see Amalek and Palestinian as synonyms, my teacher of Bible at Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Chanan Brichto, of blessed memory, taught us the following: He proposed that since the term Amalek appears only in the Bible and not in other near eastern literary or historical sources and that “Amelek” appears all over the map of the ancient Near East, that the term does not refer to a specific tribe, or ethnic group, but rather was the biblical term for terrorist. The Amalek described in each of the biblical passages is a terrorist who attacks the weak.

If, as Rabbi Brichto suggested, we view Amalekite as a term for terrorist, then the mitzvah to blot out the Amalekites in Deuteronomy 25 does not contradict the mitzvah from Deuteronomy 24, quoted above, which teaches us to judge everyone based upon their actions rather than their ethnicity or their family ties. In fact, by reading the term “Amalekite” as terrorist, we make sense of the fact that Amalekites keep appearing throughout the biblical narrative in different places and different generations. Moreover, by reading Amalekite as terrorist, we can learn the lesson that there is a clear moral distinction, in the Bible, between the prohibition against committing murder, and the command to protect yourself and others against the threat of being a murder victim.

Understanding Amelek as terrorist reminds me that our parsha called Ki Tetze L’ Milchamah not only gives us the right to self defense, but reminds us of our responsibility to limit our aggressive actions, to those who in the spirit of Amelek are a clear and present danger. The fact that 15th anniversary of 9/11 fell during this week when we read Ki Tetze reminds me of my responsibility to affirm, and confirm, the distinction, that the fact that the 19 perpetrators of 9/11 attacks were all Arab Muslims, does not mean that all Arab Muslims are terrorists.

On a personal level I find myself this year, asking the question whether Amalek is not just a term to define the evil forces outside, that threaten our personal or communal physical existence, but also, a synonym for the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination within me and within each of us, that must be confronted before we can stand before Adon Olam, The Master of the Universe, in judgment during the forthcoming Days of Awe. Looking back upon the events in our world and our nation; especially the lack of civility in our public discourse, as well reflecting upon my interactions with family and friends and community members I hear in the call to “Wipe out Amalek” a command to control the Amelek tendencies within myself and within our society. Perhaps the call to “Wipe out the Amalekites” is therefore not the embarrassing message of a call to genocide, that led a century of Reform Jews to stop reading it on Shabbat Zachor, preceding Purim, but rather, a parallel to a well known Native American story of the two wolves struggling inside each human being.

In that story a tribal chief tells his grandson that there are two wolves living within each person: one the wolf of good and the other the wolf of evil who are engaged in a battle for the control of the person. When the child asks: Which one wins? He is told that it depends which one you feed.

May 5777 be a year when each of us, and all of us, choose to feed our good inclination and thereby “wipe out the Amalek within us and beyond us.

L’shana Tova Tikatayvu

read more: