Former Shaliach in New York
Many nations have been at war with Israel over the course of history, but there is one nation that stands out and known to be the vicious of them all to the extent that the Torah orders us to blot them out of our remembrance.
Many reasons and many descriptions of the evil Amalekits have been given in order to explain why Amalek is different from all other nations Bnei Yisrael have battled over the years.
If we were to take a close and careful look at the psukim describing the initial event, we will find that the Torah, in Parashat Beshalach in Seifer Shemot, tells the story of Bnei Yisrael in Rephidim. Bnei Yisrael suffering of thirst, complain to Moshe who upon instructions from Hashem, sets out with the elders of Israel towards a meeting place at Chorev. Moshe is then told to hit the rock and water begins to flow out of the rock, most likely, forming a stream of water.
The strong and younger must have made it first to the stream of water as the rest of Bnei Yisrael begin walking towards the newly formed stream of water in Chorev. The elderly and tired people must have been stranded behind as they slowly made their way towards the water. At that time, Amalek attacked. Their attack deviated from any common norms of war. Instead of engaging in war by facing Bnei Yisrael’s army, they chose to attack the weak and helpless. This would also explain Moshe’s instructions to Yehoshua, telling him to take the army tomorrow and go fight the Amalekits. The army, simply, was not in Rephidim in order to engage in the war that has commenced at their absence.
According to many, that war is still going on to this day in different forms. The Torah obviously sees great importance in this matter as we are ordered in three different ways to wipe out the memory of Amalek; to remember what Amalek did to you; and not to forget.
In Seifer Shemuel one can learn that the order to wipe Amalek out is total, and should include children as well as the elderly, and even the behemoths of the Amalekits. It is also an order not limited in time as the pasuk in Beshalach tells us “Hashem will have war with Amalek from generation to generation”.
The Ramban gave two different commentaries to the reason that Amalek was to be punished so severely. The first of which was that Amalek was the nation that continued to deny the existence of Hashem in the world, even when other nations saw the wonders of Hashem during the exodus from Egypt. The second commentary does not relate to the unwillingness to accept the greatness of Hashem, rather it was a hatred to the people of Israel.
The second commentary has been the basis for the common thought of great Jewish rabbis and philosophers who view nations that spread hatred in the world towards the Jewish people as the successors of Amalek. Rabbi Soloveitchik, for example, expressed such a thought in several articles when reflecting upon the holocaust and the evilness expressed in a policy that sets out to destroy the Jewish people.
However, when looking back to parashat Beshalach, we can see that the order to wipe out the memory of Amalek does not appear. That might be related to the fact the Bnei Yisrael were about to enter the land of Israel only in this parasha. Only after the entering into the land, were we required, as a nation, to wipe out any memory of Amalek.
Tractate Sanhedrin (20:B) states the saying of Rabbi Yosse, that Bnei Yisrael were ordered to execute three mitzvot upon entering the Land of Israel: appoint a king, wipe out any memory of Amalek, and build the Temple.
In other words, this mitzvah is to be carried out after we have settled the land. This may have several reasons, but the idea is clear – Bnei Yisrael are expected to remember and not forget our past. The memory of Amalek is specific because of their unwillingness to recognize the kingship of Hashem in the world.
Two of the main themes of the approaching Yamim Noraim are kingship and remembrance. In these days, the Jewish people re-coronate Hashem as king of the universe and remember his involvement in this world. The kingship of Hashem is complete only when nations such as Amalek are destroyed. However, that requires that we settle in our land in peace.
May these days of Teshuva, bring us all strength to continue and settle our land, enabling us to fulfill these fundamental themes of the Yamim Noraim – the kingship of Hashem in the universe and the remembrance of his actions in this world, both a requirement in our battles with Amalek in the future.
In memory of dear family friends, Rabbi Dr. David Applebaum and his daughter Nava, whose settlement of the land was shattered 7 years ago, on the 13th day of Elul.