The closing lines of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, deal with an old foe of the People of Israel – Amalek.
Remember what Amalek perpetrated against you on the way when you were going out of Egypt. When they chanced upon you en route, struck down your tail – those straggling behind you – and you were exhausted and wearied, and they had no fear of God. When the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens; do not forget. – Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Two commandments are stated in this passage. The first commandment is to always remember what Amalek did, as the passage begins by commanding us to “remember” and ends with the words, “do not forget.” The second direct commandment is to “obliterate the memory of Amalek from beneath the sky.”
This second obligation – to wipe out Amalek – is introduced with a caveat that is unique among all the commandments in the Torah:
“When the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit”
From a simple reading, it appears that this is a prerequisite for the commandment to “obliterate the memory of Amalek.” It is not unusual for commandments in the Torah to have clearly stated prerequisite times or places. For example, there are many commandments that apply only in the land of Israel. These are often introduced with the words, “when you will enter into the land…” But this prerequisite is unique. Apparently, the commandment to destroy Amalek applies only when the nation of Israel is perfectly secure on its land and has no active enemies that threaten it.
The great medieval commentator, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th cent. Spain) addresses this point:
For this commandment applies after they will inherit the land and the land will be silent from war all around its borders, for as long as they are involved in the wars that they have in the near future [i.e. the wars to conquer the land], they are not obligated to make war with Amalek. – Ibn Ezra, Deut. 25:19
According to Ibn Ezra, there is no prohibition against destroying Amalek before the time of national security and quiet. The destruction of Amalek is always permitted. However, it is only an obligation to do so once Israel is safe from all surrounding enemies. Ibn Ezra understands the caveat “When the Lord has given you rest…” not as a prerequisite for any fulfillment of the commandment, but as a condition for the obligatory, rather than optional, nature of the commandment. But the plain meaning of the verse can just as easily be understood as prohibiting the obliteration of Amalek before the stated conditions of tranquility are met.
In almost all cases, the purpose of war is either to capture land, or to defend against attack or imminent threat. The latter may involve a pre-emptive strike to ensure victory. But in the case of this command to make war with Amalek, security is not the issue. The Torah commands a war on Amalek only when the security concerns of Israel are non-existent. The purpose of this battle is neither national defense nor the capture of land.
This unique feature of the obligation to destroy Amalek – that it only applies when Israel is completely secure – contains a powerful lesson.
Amalek is not an ordinary enemy of the People of Israel. Amalek is Israel’s archenemy because Amalek’s attack in Exodus 17 was the prototype of audacity in the face of God. God had just taken Israel out of Egypt. The ten miraculous plagues were an explicit demonstration of the hand of God. God then split the sea and drowned the Egyptians in it. Almost immediately following this, Amalek attacked. One has to wonder what Amalek was thinking. Did they really think that they had a chance of victory over Israel after what God had just done to Egypt? The answer is that Amalek believed in chance and coincidence. They believed that while there is a God, God’s will is random and subject to chance. The fact that God saved Israel on one day says nothing about what will happen on the next. The possibility that God directs the course of the history of a specific people to bring holiness into the world was repugnant to Amalek.
To put this another way, the only way to explain the seemingly irrational audacity of Amalek in attacking Israel immediately after the Exodus is to conclude that they did not believe that God had any special providential relationship with Israel. And this is what makes Amalek Israel’s archenemy.
One of the primary purposes of Israel, if not the primary purpose, is to be a vehicle for the revelation of God in this world. God reveals Himself through Israel by directing their history in miraculous ways. The Egyptians who witnessed the ten plagues recognized God through His redemption of Israel. Similarly, in our time the unprecedented, biblically foretold, miraculous return of the nation of Israel to their land testifies to God’s control over history. To believe that God has no special concern for Israel and that whatever happens in history is due to human action and chance is the essence of Amalek. As our passage puts it, “they had no fear of God.”
If Israel wages war to destroy Amalek at a time when Israel still has security concerns, the true purpose of the war would not be clear. Under such circumstances, most people would see the goal of this war as ensuring Israel’s safety from a bitter foe. The motive for going to war would not be the destruction of evil. Such a war would be understood as having a political rather than spiritual purpose. However, at a time when Israel is safe and secure, there is no political need for a war. In such a situation, the purpose of a war with Amalek is clear to all. With no political or security need, the only reason for such a war is the destruction of evil.
One might ask, at a time when Israel has achieved total peace and security and has no threat from any direction, why we should attack Amalek altogether? Perhaps the purpose of the attack is to remove any future threat from Amalek. However, this is not the case. Amalek is to be attacked even if they pose no threat of any kind to Israel. Destroying Amalek is a value unto itself.
It is interesting to note that Amalek was criticized for attacking Israel with nothing to gain and without provocation. Israel was not near Amalek’s borders when they attacked. It is an interesting quid pro quo that their fate is to be attacked at a time when there is no practical benefit to Israel in doing so.
As mentioned above, Amalek represents the ideological opposite of the Torah and Israel. This means that when Israel follows the Torah and God’s will fully, they represent the opposite of Amalek. When Israel does not follow God’s Torah, then Amalek and Israel cease to be opposites.
The war on Amalek must be clearly understood as the triumph of those who believe in God’s mastery of world events over those who deny it. And this clarity is only possible when Israel is living in obedience to God. Moses told Israel numerous times that the ultimate reward for faithfully adhering to the will of God is that Israel will dwell securely in their land. In other words, “When the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit,” is a time of optimal obedience to the word of God. This is the ideal context for the defeat of Amalek. Only then is the war against Amalek a war that is truly on behalf of God. As Moses said back in Exodus at the time of the original attack:
And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord Is My Banner, saying, “A hand upon the throne of the Lord! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” – Exodus 17:15-16
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast