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Amalek Redux

The Torah has lots of laws. Some are fun and easy to understand, like Shabbos, and some are fun and difficult to understand, like shaking the Lulav. A rare few are not only difficult to understand but leave us with a sense of moral unease as well.

One of them is the laws concerning Amalek.

On the back of the miraculous Exodus and escape at the Red Sea, the Jewish People were exhausted and weary when a band of raiders called Amalek attacked the stragglers in the group.

By most counts, there are no less than three separate duties incumbent on all Jews as it pertains to Amalek: to remember that Amalek attacked the Jewish People just as they left Egypt; not to forget what they did; and the big one, to eradicate the memory of Amalek from the world.

These laws are serious and are part of the rare category of mitzvos that apply to all people at all times under all circumstances. 

But isn’t it a little unsettling? 

It sounds uncomfortably like a mitzvah to commit genocide, the moral argument against which is certainly compelling, especially for a nation who heard the commandment “do not kill” from God’s own voice at Sinai; even more so having suffered a genocide in living memory. Although some people have no trouble understanding it that way, you’re in good company if you find difficulty in a commandment to kill Amalek today.

Long ago, the Gemara dismissed the notion of practicing the straightforward interpretation, pointing to a story in the Prophets where the Assyrian king Sennacherib forcibly displaced and resettled the entire Middle East, eliminating distinct bloodlines of racial descent.

While this elegantly eliminates the problem in a practical sense – there is no problem because the law can no longer apply – the moral issue remains open.

Over centuries, a substantial number of prominent halachic authorities have clarified that the status of Amalek is not racial; that although a tribe called Amalek attacked the Jewish People and formed the context for the law, the law is not and never was an instruction to commit genocide against those people. While the Gemara says that Amalek can never join the Jewish People, it also says that descendants of Amalek taught Torah in Israel, suggesting that their women, or children of women who married out, could lose their identity as Amalek. If Amalek isn’t a race, then there is no law to kill such a particular of people, and there is no moral dilemma.

R’ Chaim Brisker explains that Amalek is not a particular group of humans; it is a conceptual category. It’s an attitude and ideology that transcends any specific race or individual and persists forever, an archetype of evil that we must fundamentally stand against and be on alert for. Writers through the ages have labeled enemies or opposition as Amalek, which, although often lazy, correctly categorizes and formalizes this eternal struggle.

 The perpetrators of the original crime are all dead, and modern society does not believe in the heritability of guilt, but the offense isn’t simply that they physically attacked the Jewish People. As Rashi explains, it’s that they cooled us off along the way while we were weary – אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ. It’s not apologetics or mental gymnastics; it neatly fits the words and is something we recognize all around us.

As the Netziv points out, it would be self-defeating to have an eternal command to destroy something’s memory; the Torah makes that literally impossible simply by mentioning it.

The Kedushas Levi goes further and suggests that the legacy of Amalek lies in the heart of every person.

So sure, the malignant form of Amalek looks like a Haman or a Hitler. But the benign form is all around us, in ourselves and in others. It’s not any particular humans we need to overcome, but rather, their attitude and ideology. Case in point, the fight against Amalek does not end even though the nation is long gone; its legacy remains, and it’s the legacy that poses a threat.

A Chassidic aphorism observes that Amalek is numerically equivalent to doubt – עמלק / ספק – and the attack in Rephidim only happens opportunistically when people were caught off guard – רְפִידִים / רפיון ידים.

In our day-to-day lives, that looks like when you consider doing something bold or different, and someone, perhaps even yourself, pokes holes or second-guesses the new initiative. “I want to try this new idea, but maybe I shouldn’t? What if it’s the wrong choice? Maybe I don’t deserve it?” Or perhaps, “Why start or support that project—aren’t there far more important ones?”

Anthropologists and psychologists have long observed the phenomenon of crab mentality in some groups. The metaphor derives from a pattern of behavior noted in crabs when they are trapped in a bucket – any individual crab could easily escape, but the others will undermine its efforts, ensuring the group’s collective demise. In some groups, members will attempt to reduce the self-confidence of any member who achieves success beyond the others, whether out of envy, resentment, spite, or competitive feeling, to halt their progress. The wrong circles have powerful inertia that draws members towards conformity and mediocrity in a self-fulfilling negative feedback loop.

As Churchill said, if you have enemies, that means you’ve stood up for something at some time in your life. To be sure, if you only have enemies, you have a different problem; but if you have no enemies, you also have a problem, likely that you try to please everybody rather than standing for your own ideas and values. Make sure you know which side of the line you’re on!

Letting feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence persist is called impostor syndrome. You can baselessly hold back from doing things that could transform your life because you’re not ready to face the reality of your own potential greatness.

If it sounds pithy or trite, just know that that’s quite literally Amalek’s great crime – trying to hold the Jewish People back just as they were beginning to break through, discouraging them just as they were getting started and finding their feet – אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ.

As the Mishna in Pirkei Avos says, you must eliminate all doubt – הִסְתַּלֵּק מִן הַסָּפֵק.

Remember that someone who was Amalek can lose their status; when they discard their harmful ideology, they’re not the enemy anymore, and the law no longer applies to them.

Haters rarely hate you; far more often, they hate themselves because you’re showing them a reflection of what they wish they could be, and they don’t like feeling inadequate.

Shine bright and soar, and forget about the people who tried to hold you back.