Vladimir Putin made me see something in a key Torah commandment that has alluded me for all these years. We read that commandment, that mitzvah, last Shabbat:
“Remember what Amalek did to you…after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary, and he cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore…, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (See Deuteronomy 25:17-19.)
As I have written in previous columns, on the surface, this mitzvah requires us to not only eliminate the people called Amalek—in other words, to commit genocide—but also to eliminate anything that even hints that there ever was such a people. Only if everything is destroyed can we fulfill what appears to be a terrible commandment.
However, because the words “blot out,” “remember,” and “do not forget” cancel each other out, this clearly cannot be a commandment to commit genocide. The Torah’s commandments are straightforward. There is no need to contend with any kind of sacred schizophrenia. In order to fulfill this mitzvah, therefore, we first have to understand it.
It is only natural to want revenge for the atrocities an Amalek perpetrates. As I see it, therefore, what this mitzvah actually says is this: “Go ahead, do what you think you need to do, but first, study every word of this commandment carefully, and figure out exactly what it tells you about how to proceed.”
This commandment anticipates that by the time we have analyzed every word, debated every nuance, explored every approach, our anger will have sufficiently cooled for us to realize that in fact, the Torah actually forbids genocide. If we blot out Amalek from under heaven, meaning erasing any trace of Amalek from history, including any records or artifacts, there is nothing to remember. If there is nothing to remember, we have forgotten.
Besides, no matter how well we succeed in blotting out Amalek’s memory everywhere else, we still have the references to Amalek in the Tanach, our Bible. Three times every year, we read about him in the weekly Torah portion, and we read about him, as well, in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, Psalms, and 1 Chronicles.
This paradoxical mitzvah, therefore, says one thing and means the opposite. Yet the Torah is meant for all times, all places, and all circumstances. Every mitzvah it contains has relevance at all times, in all places and under all circumstances—and that includes this mitzvah.
The Zohar offers an added reason for fulfilling it. We have been praying daily for nearly 2,000 years for the Redemption from exile, which includes a world that, unlike the Amalek described in this commandment, is deterred by fear of God. Hard as it may sometimes seem, we are privileged to be living in the period known as the Atchalta d’Geulah, the Beginning of Redemption. Says the Zohar, however, that Redemption will not be complete until Amalek is totally exterminated.
In other words, we cannot achieve total redemption until we have rooted out these remaining Amalekites. We must utterly destroy them and the memory of them from under heaven. But at the same time, we must not forget.
In the past, I have noted that although Amalek and his people no longer exist in our world, people tend to identify other enemies (Adolf Hitler and his followers, Palestinian terrorist organizations, etc.) as being Amalek. I have also warned of the danger in that, because it could lead to ignoring the paradox and initiating a genocidal war.
Thanks to Vladimir Putin, however, a lightbulb went off in my head. I was wrong in saying that we dare not identify the Amaleks in today’s world. We just need to understand how the Amalek commandment applies in our time.
The eternal war against Amalek began as a real war, but as times and circumstances have changed, so has that war changed. It is no longer a war against a people that no longer exists. It is, instead, a war against those who emulate Amalek.
Amalek despised God’s code of ethics and morality. Rather than a direct attack on the Israelites, he “surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” By killing the weakest and most vulnerable, Amalek sought to demoralize the Israelites sufficiently to destroy them.
That lightbulb in my head also told me that, in today’s world, Vladimir Putin is Amalek.
Here are but a few examples of what an Amalek does:
A mother and her two children fleeing a Kyiv suburb to safety were killed by Russian mortar fire.
An 18-month-old child was killed by a missile strike.
A little girl was killed by a Russian bomb that struck a supermarket.
Two people were killed when Russian bombs hit a school in southern Ukraine.
Airstrikes on two other schools and several apartment blocks took the lives of 47 civilians.
A six-year-old girl in Mariupol died from dehydration because Putin’s forces cut off the supplies of water, electricity, heat, and medical supplies (including pharmaceuticals) to the city’s residents.
As of this writing, according to the World Health Organization, there have been 26 attacks on hospitals and other health facilities, resulting in at least 12 deaths. This includes an airstrike on a maternity hospital in which at least three people were killed.
For us to fulfill the Amalek commandment as it relates to Putin is to expose his lies on the one hand, and on the other to not give him support of any kind, even the tacit support making the rounds in Jewish communities. It is being said that we should not care about what happens to Ukraine because the antisemitic Ukrainians by and large have acted on their Jew-hatred by killing so many of us for centuries, including during the Shoah.
That is the wrong attitude on many levels. First of all, as Proverbs 24:17 warns us, “If your enemy falls, do not rejoice; if he trips, let your heart not be glad.” In Pirkei Avot 4:19 and in several other places, our Sages of Blessed Memory add the reason for this, “lest the Lord see it and be displeased.”
Putin, by the way, wants us to have that attitude. In his speech announcing the invasion, he said that, among other things, its goal is the “denazification of Ukraine.” He later expressed surprise that Jews were supporting Ukraine given its antisemitic history.
Some of us, sadly, are falling for it.
I despise Ukrainian history toward us, but Jewish law is clear that we may not rejoice when an enemy falls. That certainly applies double when that enemy falls to an even greater enemy.
The history of the Jews living under the czars is a bloody history. The pogroms that began in the early 1880s, including in what was then Russian Ukraine, were part of the czarist government’s campaign against the Jews. The pamphlets calling for various pogroms were printed by the government. Local authorities were ordered by the government to protect the rioting mobs from any Jewish defenders.
In 1827, Czar Nicholas I came up with the idea of destroying Judaism entirely by forcibly conscripting Jewish boys—beginning at age 12—to serve in the Russian Army for 25 years. During that time, every effort had to be made to convert them to Christianity. Many parents cut off their sons’ trigger fingers to keep them out of the czar’s army, so desperate were they to save them from what they regarded as a death sentence.
That infamous forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was perpetrated by the czarist secret police in 1903. It still haunts us today. Antisemites the world over use it as proof of how we plan to take over the world.
Things were as bad, and perhaps even worse, when the Communists took over—or have we forgotten why there ever was a Soviet Jewry movement?
Toward the end of the period of Russian Jewish history known as the Black Years, Joseph Stalin was preparing to order the mass deportation of Russia’s Jews to northern Siberia—and we can only guess what his next step would have been. He died in March 1953 before he could carry out this plan.
His successors were not much better. Under Nikita Khrushchev, for example, a person could be—and many were—arrested by the KGB, no less, for the crime of baking matzah. Under Andrei Kosygin and Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet-controlled media repeatedly proclaimed Judaism to be a criminal religion from its earliest days.
The Amalek commandment ends with “Do not forget.” We must not forget that our job is to blot out Amalek’s memory from under heaven—not by killing him and his followers, but by doing whatever we can to bring them down once and for all. Even tacit support for Vladimir Putin violates that commandment.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.