By Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari
"And Amalek came and warred with Israel" (Shmot17:8). There are many
motives to explain this attack. Perhaps he was in the neighborhood by
chance and therefore attacked. [Contrast this with S. R. Hirsch's view
that Amalek had a contrary viewpoint to Judaism, according to which all is
mere mikreh, chance, without any Divine plan]. Alternatively, he
remembered how Yaakov took the blessing of Yitschak from his grandfather
Eisav and attacked Israel out of revenge or out of fear that the
prophesy, 'and the elder shall serve the younger' would be realized at his
expense. The attack by Amalek was punishment for Israel's sin when they
said "Is Hashem in our midst"? [Contrast this with Rashi's comment that
sinning through weight s and measures brings the enemy (Devarim, 25:17) He
could have thought this was the moment to attack them as the blessing
said, "If he will not be deserving then you will break his yoke from off
your neck" (Ber.27:40). Amalek knew that his destiny, like all the
descendants of Eisav was to live by the sword so that this attack was a
fulfillment of destiny; it would also show his superiority over Pharaoh
and Egypt who had been powerless against Israel.
Actually there were 2 battles. The first when Amalek attacked suddenly;
note the text says Amalek came and attacked, rather than Amalek came to do
battle. Then there was the battle of Yehoshua on the orders of Moshe,
rather than by Divine command. Moshe went up the mountain and stood there
with his arms raised when Yehoshua took some men against Amalek. In view
of the insignificance of the enemy, Moshe himself did not go to battle nor
did he send 'anshei hayil' men of valor, seasoned and select troops, but
only, as the text tells us choose people, any anonymous people, led by one
who was only a youth, the servant of Moshe. He took with him the staff
with which he had performed miracles, the most recent of which was the
drawing of the water from the rock. Indeed, it was to the same rock that
Moshe went; the same rock where later G-d was to show His Glory and teach
Moshe and Israel the 13 Divine Attributes, when He forgave Israel for the
sin of the Golden Calf. Now he stood there as a memorial for the people of
2 things. The one was boost their morale in the same way as kings and
generals do, by showing their troops that they are in command and guiding
the battle. Halakhically, the war against Amalek required a king. In
addition, by showing the staff of miracles and his hands raised in prayer,
he was telling Israel that Hashem had forgiven them for their questioning
whether He was really in their midst in their difficulties. As Chazal
teach us, "When Moshe raised his arms, the people subjected their hearts
to G-d and were victorious" (Rosh Hashanah).
We should note that Yehoshua did not destroy Amalek, only "he harried or
discomforted Amalek with the edge of the sword". Nor did Shaul wipe them
out, neither were they wiped out in the days Mordechai and Esther after
Purim. Therefore we were given the constant and eternal commandment of
remembering what Amalek did to us and of wiping out his memory (Devarim,
25:17-19). Yet there was also the eternal war referred to in our sedrah,
of G-d against Amalek.
Such eternal enmity, battle and destruction we do not find with any enemy
of Israel apart from Amalek. With regard to Egypt we are warned, "You
shall not abhor an Egyptian for you were a stranger in his land"(Devarim,
23:8). They welcomed us and gave us hospitality and that should be
remembered. It is true that later they oppressed us and persecuted us, but
that was the manner of the nations and they were punished for their
excessive oppression. Regarding Edom who was a descendant of Eisav like
Amalek and from whom we suffered at various periods, the same verse tells
us, "You shall not abhor an Edomite for he is your brother ". They too
were punished for their actions. In both cases after 3 generations
intermarriage with their converts were permitted. Why then is Amalek
singled out eternally for destruction both by Israel and by G-d?
[Abarbanel seems to consider Amalek as something more than the usual anti
Semite. In modern parlance he is guilty of crimes against humanity, a war
criminal; we must remember that there exists in Judaism the concept of
Amalek never fought a humane war. He did not announce his attack and give
the enemy a chance to surrender as do all kings and rulers when they
declare war on somebody. Rather, he snuck up and suddenly fell on the
stragglers as does a thief in the night. [The Admor of Chabad taught that
having stragglers, the weaker and ignored members of a Jewish society, was
the sin that called for Amalek]. He attacked a people unused to warfare,
coming out of slavery when they had neither food nor drink. Perhaps he
wanted to return them to slavery?
His war with Israel had neither a just cause nor a legitimate purpose.
They were no threat to his territory nor were attacking his allies. There
was no history to justify his attack nor were going to a land that
belonged to him. Amalek was not set on theft, booty or taking captives.
Chazal likened him to snake who kills even when it does not want to eat
the prey. Amalek just killed for the sake and pleasure of killing. This
was simple and unashamed evil and inhumanity.
There was in Amalek neither fear of G-d nor belief in His Justice and
Providence; only a denial of His Power and His intervention in the affairs
of mankind. He saw only rule of power and the success of physical
strength. He cowardly feared open combat and the challenge of balanced
forces. However, he had no fear nor any thought of the Master of the whole
world and the Creator of all that exists.
So we have "remember what Amalek did to you when you left Egypt", but
also "the Lord will war with Amalek from generation to generation".
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Torah.org.
r. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.