Wiping out the memory of Amalek is among the Torah laws we must obey for our own good, that are most hard to understand.
We read in this week’s haftorah:
“Samuel said to Saul, I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over His people Israel. Therefore, listen to the Lord’s command! Thus said the Lord of Hosts: I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made upon them on the road, on their way up from Egypt. Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe והחרמתם all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (1 Samuel 15:1-3).
King Saul argued against killing Amalek babies and animals
A rabbinic view is that King Saul argued against killing Amalek babies and animals. A rabbinic view is that this was a command from God that we don’t understand, but we must obey, for our own good.
Tractate Yoma 22b:
“Then Saul advanced as far as the city of Amalek and lay in wait וירב in the wadi.(1 Samuel 15:5). Saul was thus striving וירב because of what happens in the valley, i.e., he argued from that ceremony against the slaying of the Amalekites. R. Mani said: Because of what happens in the valley: When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Saul: “Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe והחרמתם all that belongs to him.” he said: If on account of one person the Torah said: Perform the ceremony of the heifer whose neck is to be broken , how much more [ought consideration to be given] to all these persons! And if human beings sinned, what has the cattle committed; and if the adults have sinned, what have the little ones done? [“Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings”].
"A Divine voice came forth and said: “So don’t overdo goodness and don’t act the wise man to excess, or you may be dumfounded” (Ecclesiastes 7:16). And when Saul said to Doeg: “Thereupon the king said to Doeg, You, Doeg, go and strike down the priests. And Doeg the Edomite went and struck down the priests himself; that day, he killed eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod” (1 Samuel 22:18). A heavenly voice came forth to say: “Don’t overdo wickedness and don’t be a fool, or you may die before your time”(Ecclesiastes 7:17).
It is a sad story of King Saul failing to heed Samuel’s commands to follow the Torah’s law of wiping out completely the memory of Amalek. Saul was merciful to cruel/bad Amalekites and then Saul, in later life, became cruel to holy/good people.
Hertz Chumash: Amalek killed unprovoked the feeble and hindmost
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
The Hertz Chumash writes here: “While Israel was to make justice and brotherly love its guiding rule, it was not to forget that Amalek had perpetrated a cowardly and unprovoked attack on the feeble and hindmost, when the Israelites were marching from Egypt; Exod. 17:8-16…A people so devoid of natural religion as to kill non-combatants had forfeited all claim to mercy.”
Hertz stresses that Amalek killed civilians unprovoked. The Talmud stresses that mercy to the cruel can lead to killing innocent righteous. Samuel executed Agag, the surviving king of Amalek: “Samuel said: As your sword has bereaved women, So shall your mother be bereaved among women. And Samuel cut Agag down before the Lord at Gilgal. (1 Samuel 15:33)
Amalek attacked the Israelites before Mount Sinai
Amalek was Moses and Joshua’s first battle against an incorrigible enemy of Israel. It came right after the Israelites grumbling against Moses.
“The place was named Massaha and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Lord, saying, Is the Lord present among us or not? Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, Pick some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand.” Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set. And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword. Then the Lord said to Moses, Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven! And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi. He said, It means, Hand upon the throne of the Lord! The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” (Exodus 17:7-16).
War against Amalek Exodus versus Deuteronomy
In Exodus, the Lord is “at war with Amalek.” In Deuteronomy God commands us “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” In Exodus, the Israelites were in the desert and God did miracles: manna from heaven, clouds of glory, etc. In the land of Israel, we must work the ground to get our bread etc. In the desert Moses and Aaron were the leaders. In the land of Israel, we had prophets such as Samuel and kings such as Saul, David and Solomon.
The Zohar on Amalek
Soncino Zohar, Beshalach (Exodus) 65a
It is prohibited “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together” (Deuteronomy 22:10). From them, when united, emanates the power, called dog, which is more insolent than all of them. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: You said “Is the Lord present among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). Behold, I will deliver you to the dog!, and straightway came Amalek. R. Judah said: It is written, “He saw Amalek and, taking up his theme, he [Balaam] said: A leading nation is Amalek; But its fate is to perish forever” (Numbers 24: 20). Was, then, Amalek the first of the nations? Were there not many tribes, nations, and peoples in the world before Amalek came? But the meaning is that Amalek was the first nation who feared not to proclaim war against Israel, as it says, “and he feared not God” (Deut. 24:18); whilst the other nations were filled with fear and trembling before Israel at the time of the Exodus, as it says: “The peoples hear, they tremble; Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia” (Exodus 15:14). In fact, apart from Amalek there was no nation that was not awestruck before the mighty works of the Holy One, blessed be He. Therefore “But its fate is to perish forever.”
God saw that Amalek was incorrigible
God commanded the wiping out the memory of Amalek. God said this only of Amalek and of no other people. The Torah is telling us: only Amalek is incorrigible. One opinion in the Talmud is that Jethro converted because of hearing about the war against Amalek.
“Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, heard (Exodus 18:1): what news did he hear that he came and turned a proselyte? R. Joshua said: He heard of the battle with the Amalekites, since this is immediately preceded by, “And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword (Exodus 17:13).
Our foremost enemy today is Iran. Is Iran incorrigible and a modern Amalek? We live in Israel, eat bread from our plowing etc and not manna from heaven and such. We must fight our enemies. We pray that it be God’s will to eradicate the memory of all who seek our destruction.
Our Rabbis taught: Naaman was a resident alien [One who renounces idolatry for the sake of certain rights of citizenship in Palestine.], Nebuzaradan was a righteous proselyte [One who accepts all the laws of Judaism with no ulterior motive], the descendants of Sisera studied Torah in Jerusalem; the descendants of Sennacherib taught Torah to the multitude: Who were these? Shemaiah and Abtalion [The teachers of Hillel.]. The descendants of Haman studied Torah in Bnei Berak.
“And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one Lord with one name. (Zachariah 14:9).
The 11th of Adar is yorzeit of my dear father 1982. My Parents, of blessed memory, made aliya from USA in 1970. I followed in 1991.