Ki Tetsei: Fighting Amalek

Fighting Amalek and perfecting the world.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Rare Yom Kippur War PICs
Rare Yom Kippur War PICs

Parashat Ki Teitzei is particularly rich in mitzvot: of the 613 in the Torah, 74 – more than 12%! – are in this parashah. The final three of these govern our relationship with Amalek:

“Remember what Amalek did to you when you were on your way out of Egypt: how he happened upon you on the way and stuck the hindmost of you – all the weakest behind you – when you were tired and weary, and he did not fear G-d. So it will be, when Hashem your G-d will grant you respite from all your surrounding enemies in the Land which Hashem your G-d gives you as a heritage to inherit – eradicate the memory of Amalek from beneath the Heavens; do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

With these three verses Parashat Ki Teitzei closes, and they contain three mitzvot, two positive and one negative:

Mitzvah #603 (Positive Mitzvah #242): To remember every day with spoken words the evil that Amalek did to us.

Mitzvah #604 (Positive Mitzvah #243): To exterminate Amalek, and Amalek alone of all Esau’s descendants.

Mitzvah #605 (Negative Mitzvah #362): Not to forget the evil that Amalek did to us [1].

These Mitzvot were given to us in the last few days of Moshe’s life, meaning almost 40 years after Amalek’s attack on us in the Sinai Desert. And there is a peculiarity in this command to us to “eradicate the memory of Amalek from beneath the Heavens”: because forty years earlier, in the immediate aftermath of Amalek’s attack on us and our victory over him, G-d Himself told Moshe: “Write this as a memorial in the Book, and put it in Joshua’s ears – because I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from beneath the Heavens” (Exodus 17:14).

So if G-d is so categorical that He Himself “will assuredly eradicate the memory of Amalek from beneath the Heavens”, then why is it necessary, or even possible, for Him to command us to “eradicate the memory of Amalek from beneath the Heavens”?

We begin our answer with the elegant, heartfelt, passionate, tragic words of Rabbi Joseph Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946) from almost exactly 76 years ago. It was Sunday 15th Ellul 5701 (7th September 1941), and the Chief Rabbi delivered his address in the ruins of the Great Synagogue in London – a magnificent building dating back to 1790, which had been destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs four months earlier on Shabbat, 13th Iyyar (10th May).

A temporary platform and reading-desk had been erected in the place of the Holy Ark, and it was there that Rabbi Hertz delivered his sermon, “vigorously and forcefully, and his powerful voice could be heard above the droning of the aeroplanes that occasionally passed over” [2]:

“‘Out of the depths I cry unto Thee,’ exclaimed the Psalmist in the days of old... ‘From amid the ruins of Thy Sacred House we cry unto Thee’, is our supplication on this National Day of Prayer. And the sight of this once noble sanctuary, wrecked to its foundations by the blind fury of the enemy, will touch the heart of every one who prays for the triumph of Right and Freedom in the universe...

“Its barbarous destruction is, alas, a symbol of the unparalleled Jewish tragedy that started in 1933 [3]. Think of the many hundreds of synagogues that were dynamited and burnt on 10th November, 1938 [4]; and of the widespread destruction of Jewish houses of worship throughout Poland and other lands under the swastika...

“With the Paytan [liturgical poet] we ask: ‘How long O Lord, wilt Thou remain heedless of the raging of Thine enemies, and the devastation of Thy sanctuary? How long wilt Thou remain forgetful of the dispersals of Thy People, who are oppressed for Thy sake, who perish for the sanctification of Thy Name?’

“An answer to the Paytan’s agonised question and to our own, is indicated in yesterdays Reading from the Torah. We are there reminded of Amalek’s unprovoked treacheries to the Israelites; how his cruelty vented itself on the feeble and weary. ‘And he feared not G-d’, adds Scripture. He was devoid of that fundamental decency towards the weak and helpless that constitutes the humanity of man. That same judgment must be passed on Amalek’s latest spiritual descendant: he fears not G-d; he closes the gates of mercy on those who cannot resist his heathen might...

“In this connection it is well to call to mind that Scripture refers twice to the utter passing away of Amalek, in Exodus and in Deuteronomy. It does so in slightly different forms, and both forms have their solemn message to us to-day. In Exodus we are told, ‘I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek’. G-d, being the G-d of Righteousness and Justice, will ensure the blotting out Amalek, ancient or modern, from the memory of man...

“The second reference to Amalek is in Deuteronomy, at the end of yesterday’s Reading. Instead of saying ‘I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek’, as in Exodus, Scripture now says, ‘Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven’. There is no contradiction to the words in Exodus; it is only another way of stating that Providence works through human agents, and that the blotting out of Amalek must likewise be carried out by human agents; i.e. by men and nations filled with an endless loathing of Amalek and all his works and ways”.

Thus one explanation, dating from a time – still just about within living memory – of a global war against Amalek.

Let us return to that very first encounter with Analek, when he attacked us unprovoked in the Sinai Desert. Moshe’s response was not to stand passively in prayer, calling on G-d to fight for us. Rather, his response was to instruct his lieutenant, Joshua, to choose men and go out to fight Amalek (Exodus 17:9).

“Go out to fight Amalek” (Exodus 17:9) – “go out from under the Clouds of Glory” (Targum Yonatan ad loc.). That is to say: Once Amalek has attacked, do not confine yourself to mere defence. Go out on the attack, carry the war to the enemy.

But though it was soldiers of the Children of Israel who fought, G-d defined it as “Hashem’s war against Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16).

Indeed, Israel’s enemies are G-d’s enemies, so when Israel fights, it fights G-d’s wars. This is the reason that the Rambam defines a righteous Jewish king who goes in the path of the Torah as “fighting the Wars of Hashem” (Laws of Kings 1:8). And part of the test of the true Mashiach is that “he will fight the Wars of Hashem” (ibid. 11:4).

From the very beginning of human history, man was supposed to be G-d’s partner in Creation. “G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it He desisted from all His labour which G-d had created to do” (Genesis 2:3) – G-d had created all and left man to do the rest, to complete and perfect His Creation.

Fighting and defeating Amalek is an integral component of completion and perfection of G-d’s Creation. And it is a component which G-d left in our hands.

In direct contrast to prevailing attitudes in certain sectors of the current Torah-world, G-d does not tell us not to fight, He does not expect us to be passive onlookers as He fights our battles. No – He commands us to take up arms and to fight His battles!

“I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek...You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven”.

The Midrash graphically describes how Amalek chose to attack the Jews: “They would grab the Israelites by their place of circumcision and hurl them up, saying: By this You chose them – so here, take what You have chosen” (Eichah Rabbah 3:22 and Midrash Ha-Chefetz).

The image of Amalek grabbing Jews – in particular Jewish children – and hurling them up so they would crash down and die is a chillingly accurate precursor of the Nazi Holocaust.

The Midrash continues that this was why the Prophet Samuel exacted punishment for them when he chopped the Amalekite King Agag into pieces. The prophet addressed Agag with his words of simple, uncompromising justice: “Just as your sword has made women childless, thus shall your mother be childless among women” (1 Samuel 15:33). The last words that Agag ever heard.

“And then Samuel chopped Agag into pieces before Hashem in Gilgal” (ibid.).

A fitting end indeed for the king of Amalek – a king and a nation who since their inception epitomised and personified cruelty and hatred of Israel.

The Torah does not specify the date of Amalek’s first attack on us in the desert, but it does give us sufficient information to date it fairly precisely.

The Children of Israel had arrived at the Wilderness of Sin, between Elim and Sinai, on the 15th of Iyyar (Exodus 16:1). The next day the manna began to fall; that was a Sunday (Seder Olam Rabbah 5). The manna fell for six days, and on the sixth day – Friday – they collected a double portion (Exodus 16:2-27). Hence that Shabbat was the 22nd of Iyyar.

The next day, Sunday 23rd of Iyyar, the Israelites came to Rephidim (Exodus 17:1 and Seder Olam Rabbah 5), where they complained about the lack of water; there Moshe struck the rock at G-d’s command to bring forth water (Exodus 17:5-6).

The next event recorded is Amalek’s attack, though (as we noted) the Torah does not specify the date of this attack.

The next event whose date we do know is the Israelites’ arrival in the Sinai Desert, on the 1st of Sivan (Exodus 19:1 with Targum Yonatan ad loc.; also Shabbat 86b and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Yitro – Masechet Bachodesh 1).

Hence Amalek’s attack occurred some time between the 24th and the 29th of Iyyar 2448 (1312 B.C.E.).

In 1960 the Mossad tracked Adolf Eichmann y”sh down in Argentina, abducted him, and brought him to Israel to stand trial for his role in the Shoah. Found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, he was executed in Ramle Prison on, 28th Iyyar 5722 (1st June 1962). Interestingly, significantly, on about the same date as Amalek’s initial attack on us.

Eichmann, facing death at the hands of the Jews whom he had attempted to exterminate, wrote a letter to President Yitzchak Ben-Tzvi, pleading for clemency. Ben-Tzvi rejected his plea, quoting the prophet Samuel’s words: “Just as your sword has made women childless, thus shall your mother be childless among women” (1 Samuel 15:33). A fitting end indeed for the chief engineer of the Shoah.

The timing is hardly coincidence. G-d Himself show us how He fights “Hashem’s war against Amalek from generation to generation” through His children. When Jews pick up weapons and fight their enemies and G-d’s enemies, they are doing the work of Hashem by completing and perfecting His Creation.

[1] This follows the mitzva-count of Mahara”m Hagiz (Rabbi Moshe ben Shlomo ibn Haviv, Salonika and Jerusalem, 1654-1696), in Minyan ha-Mitzvot (parashah-by-parashah enumeration of the mitzvot). The Rambam, in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot, enumerates these respectively as Positive Mitzvot Numbers 188 and 189, and Negative Mitzvah Number 59.

[2] As reported in the Jewish Chronicle on 12th September 1941.

[3] When Hitler y”sh came to power in Germany.

[4] Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass”, the first officially-organised anti-Jewish pogrom in the Third Reich. Hundreds of Jews were murdered (the exact death-toll is impossible to determine), some 30,000 Jews were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps, over 1,000 synagogues were destroyed, and over 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses destroyed or damaged. In historical terms, Kristallnacht is usually regarded as the start of the Shoah.