By Rabbi Doron Perez
Absolute evil exists in our generation. It has existed in every generation for millennia. It constitutes a single-minded systematic focus – to destroy all that is good in the world. It has a name according to biblical literature and Torah tradition – that name is Amalek. The Torah commands us to always remember and never to forget what Amalek represents.
This is the essence of Parashat Zachor that we will read this Shabbat. It is the insistence of our sages to institute a public annual Torah reading for all Jews lest we forget the role of Amalek in world affairs. The timing is significant. Read on the Shabbat preceding Purim and the Haman saga, it is a sobering reminder of the continued existence of absolute evil and our obligation never to forget it.
This is particularly relevant to the statesmen and leadership of the Jewish people as according to most Halachic authorities the mitzvah to confront Amalek was specifically applicable to the ציבור , the collective , and the elected political leader – the King.
Rambam states this explicitly (Laws of Kings and Their Wars 1,1). Based on the Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 20b), the Mitzvah of remembering and confronting Amalek is a Mitzvah on כלל ישראל – the Jewish People as a collective – and is to be implemented by the king. Indeed, Rabbi Meshulam Rata in his Halachic Responsa (Kol Mevasser 2, 42) notes that majority of opinions rule that this Mitzvah is incumbent upon the king – the political leadership.
Most situations in life are not black or white. In ethical terms, they are not, as a general rule, absolutely good or absolutely bad, but rather nuanced with many shades of moral gray in between. At the same time, world and Jewish history is a living testament to the undeniable existence of destructive ideologies of absolute evil. Haman’s declared intention was to kill every last Jew in all 127 countries of Achashverosh’s vast global empire. His Final Solution was on the brink of implementation. It was only through the grace of G-d and the actions of Mordechai and Esther that his plan was thwarted at the 90th minute. Thousands of years later, Hitler – a modern day Haman as we all know – declared the same intentions, however with the distinct difference of succeeding in horrifically murdering one third of the Jewish People. If not for the hand of Providence and the actions of the Allied Forces, G-d Forbid he may have succeeded. Unstopped and unchecked, Amalek will destroy every last Jew – every man, woman and child wherever they are.
The Perennial battle of Good against Evil
Even though Amalek no longer exists as a nation (since the time of the population transfer of Sancheriv and intermingling of the 70 biblical nations of old) it most certainly exists as an ideology. It’s goal is to eradicate everything good in the world – first and foremost the Jewish people, and all those who stand for morality and justice.
Remarkably, only two nations are called ראשית, the first of nations-the Jewish people and Amalek.
As the verses states:
קֹדֶשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל לַה’ רֵאשִׁית תְּבוּאָתֹה כָּל אֹכְלָיו יֶאְשָּׁמוּ רָעָה תָּבֹא אֲלֵיהֶם נְאֻם ה’ (ירמיהו ב, ג):
Israel is holy to G-d, the first of His grain; all who eat him shall be guilty, evil shall befall them, says G-d. (Jeremiah 2, 3)
וַיַּרְא אֶת עֲמָלֵק וַיִּשָּׂא מְשָׁלוֹ וַיֹּאמַר רֵאשִׁית גּוֹיִם עֲמָלֵק וְאַחֲרִיתוֹ עֲדֵי אֹבֵד (במדבר כד, כ):
“When he saw Amalek, he took up his parable and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, and his fate shall be everlasting destruction.” (Bamidbar 24,20)
The point of our sages is clear: these two nations both ‘the first’ are pitted against each other in the perennial battle of good and evil. It is not by chance that the first nation to attack Israel, (Shemot 17) as soon as we came out of Egypt, was Amalek. Just like on an individual level we battle constantly between our impulses of good and evil – the יצר טוב and the יצר הרע, so too on a cosmic level these forces struggles with one another – the mission of כלל ישראל as opposed to that of עמלק.
The story about the battle between good and evil is, as is well known, is the most common plot and theme in all forms of literary and theatre genre. The reason this is the case is that it is the psychological and historical reality of the human condition. The hero and villain are locked in a constant micro and macro cosmic battle. Individuals and societies possess simultaneously both the desire for altruistic good and the desire for self destructive evil. The mission of Israel is the former while Amalek the latter.
How does one recognize Amalek in the world? Where does it leave it’s footprints in the sands of human history? Where can we find its imprint on the canvas of human living? The answer is this: it is to be found wherever we find people breaking the accepted norms of human interaction, living outside the moral consensus and international conventions of normative political, military and societal living.
There are two remarkable points which emanate from the reading of Parashat Zachor which highlight Amalek’s unique senseless and destructive pursuit of evil. The 3 verses which constitute Parashat Zachor are as follows (Devarim 25, 17-19):
“זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם: אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹקִים: וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ | לְךָ מִכָּל אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח”
“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt. How he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God. [Therefore,] it will be, when the Lord your God grants you respite from all your enemies around [you] in the land which the Lord, your God, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!”
The underlined verse is most telling as to Amalek’s motives. Amalek just happened to attack us. They clearly were not motivated by normal political or military motivations. There was no land to conquer, and they had been no previous gripe that we are told about with the Children of Israel. They chose to attack for no acceptable political or military reason, but rather to commit evil for its own sake.
Secondly, it is important to note that Amalek specific all targets innocent and particularly vulnerable civilians. This is not a regular military confrontation but rather a purposeful and systematic attack on those who are lagging behind the rest. They were those struggling in the heat and straggling behind: the elderly, the young, the weak and the infirm who were the target. They attacked not those in uniform but civilians. Not only regular civilians, but the most vulnerable ones.
In essence, then, an ideology of evil for its own sake and a systematic targeting of civilians, particularly the vulnerable are the DNA of Amalek.
This has taken on a new form in the modern era. It is a modern phenomenon with its own name – Terrorism . The aim of international terrorism is to do exactly what its name implies: to terrorize people – men, women and children and innocent civilians anywhere and everywhere. The acceptable international norm in military interaction is that an army confronts another, and only combatants in uniform fight against their counterparts. Civilians are to be left alone to go about their normal life. They are beyond the pale of ideological and military confrontation. This is how most human beings operate. Amalek, however, thinks differently. It is specifically the civilians, the non-combatants who are the aim of their terror. It is all civilians everywhere, particularly the weak, infirm and defenseless in society. Behead, blow-up, burn, torture, hijack, hang, bomb and terrorize.
Regular Israeli civilians just wanting to get on with their lives are constantly terrorized by Hamas and Hezbollah. Al-Qaida and the like have done the same in cities around the world .Iran is a great supporter of terror and has her own diabolical aspirations for nuclear hegemony. Most recently ISIS has shown its colors with its barbaric mechanism of public murder of defenseless prisoners of other nations and religions and displayed an intolerance of anyone who is different from them.
If is a harsh reality to face that unfortunately almost all terror today is being done by extreme fanatical Muslim fundamentalists – Radical Islam. It is obvious that not all Muslims support, promote or implement terrorism. There are many all over the world who are peace loving and distance themselves from this fanatical stream. At the same though almost all terrorists today in the 21st century are Muslims. It seems that more could be done in the Muslim community throughout the world to vociferously distance themselves and uproot this modern day scourge. Indeed, in our specific generation over the last 50 years Radical Islam has become a great threat to western civilization. I dare say that it is as dangerous for a Jew to live today in many Muslim cities around the world as it was in Berlin and Warsaw of 1940.
It was Islamic fundamentalist terrorism which invented something which was unheard of 50 years ago: the hijacking of innocent civilians on airplanes. Normative human behavior celebrated the scientific achievement of the airplane as an ingenious innovation in human transportation. It was Terrorism which viewed the airplane as an opportunity to disrupt civilian life, to murder and to terrorize. Al Qaida on 9/11 showed us the unthinkable things that warped minds of terror could conjure up with these manmade flying machines. There seems to be no limit to the immoral perversion of the heart and mind. For normative society the Olympic games is an arena where human beings compete against each other to show what we are capable of when we push ourselves to our physical and mental limits. In Munich in 1972 though, Palestinian terrorists showed that it is rather a platform to hijack, terrorize and murder.
If there is one this clear about Amalekite Anti-Semitism it is this – it always begins with the Jews but never ends with them. If planes and Jews are being hijacked, Israeli athletes murdered and civilians in Israel cities terrorized , one can be sure that this will spill over to all fair-minded good people around the world. Buildings and planes in New York, trains in Madrid, buses in London, night clubs in Bali, schools in Toulouse, offices and stores in Paris and Coffee shops in Sydney are fair targets. Radical Islamic Terror is the newest reincarnation of Amalek’s mission.
The Indispensable Role of a Leader
It is incumbent on statesmen and leaders to comprehend with clarity the challenge of dealing with Amelek and the need to eradicate it. It is mindboggling to think what may have happened in both World and Jewish History to Europe if not for courageous clear thinking leaders. What would have happened had Mordechai not had the temerity to stand up to Haman. It seems that he and only he was able to stem the tide of the destructive tsunami that threatened to annihilate the Jewish People. His role along with Ester’s was indispensable.
It is equally impossible to think of what might have happened to Europe and perhaps beyond if not for the heroic acts of Winston Churchill in the 1940’s. Charles Krauthammer, America’s preeminent columnist has argued that Churchill’s role in the confronting Nazism was so indispensable that it made him the most important person of the 20th century (Things That Matter, pg 22) .It is clear that what enabled him to be the appropriate statesman to lead Britain and indeed the European continent at its most trying time was his absolute clarity of vision of what Nazism stood for and aspired to achieve. In countless articles in the 30’s he more than anyone else understood and articulated the destructive dangers of Nazism. In 1935 many branded him as an extremist bleating away superlatives and viewing the world in a black and white simplistic way. In 1940 very few of his ardent critics could doubt him. It is hard to imagine what the world may have looked like had Churchill alone not had this absolute clarity. Boris Johnson, the current Mayor of London makes this point very powerfully in his book “The Churchill Factor” (in the chapter entitled – The Non-Churchill Universe). He explores the ‘counter factual’ view of what may have happened to Europe if not for the leadership of Winston Churchill. It is quite frightening. It seems clear that no one else would have been able to stand up to the Nazi juggernaut and the fate of freedom and democracy in the world and most certainly in Europe would’ve have been altered forever, not to mention of course the imminent death and destruction that would have befallen every last Jew in every European country and possibly beyond.
We live in a generation where we are desperately in need of leaders who are able to see the threat of Radical Islamic Terror today for what it is. To see Iran and her single minded nuclear aspirations with crystal clear clarity and to be able to confront her in every possible arena. The need to see ISIS, Al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah for what they are and what they aim to achieve through Terrorism.
Life is indeed very nuanced and complex and must be seen with great sophistication. However, we have to be very mindful in the specific battle against Amalek and the forces of absolute evil that our own nuanced, complex and sophisticated view of the world does not cloud our vision in dealing with this scourge. The great advantage of open and democratic society must not become our great weakness.
It is important to point out that thankfully Amalek is indeed a minority of human beings. One of our great battles is for the hearts and minds of the vast majority of our fellow earthly civilians- the honest and fair-minded people who constitute the silent majority. We cannot attempt to be victorious if we are not armed first and foremost with absolute moral clarity and vision and tenacity. However at the same time, we cannot win the battle for public opinion without engaging in a constant educational and diplomatic endeavor of impacting on the fair-minded people around the world who truly seek justice and truth.
Leadership, courage and clarity of vision are indispensable now more than ever.