Tzav – Our Nemesis
This Shabbat we fulfill the Mitzvah of remembering our deep seated hatred of Amalek. The Torah bids us never to forget how Amalek took a swipe at us while we were weary and vulnerable. We must carry this memory in our hearts until the opportunity arises for us to erase the memory of Amalek, obliterate them from under the heavens.
The tone of this passage is striking and it content is unusual. The commandments of the Torah generally go in the opposite direction when relating to fellow human beings. “Love your fellow as yourself,” “Love the stranger,” “Do not ignore the lost object of another,” “You must assist your enemy to unload his burden off his struggling donkey.” These are some examples of what the Torah expects from us in our relationships with others. One of our tasks in life is to refine our character and become a loving, giving person, emulating the kindness of G-d.
What place then does this commandment to hate and attempt to destroy Amalek have in our Torah? It is even more disturbing that Amalek is singled out from other nations who have acted more grievously toward us. Egypt enslaved us and oppressed our people bitterly for generations. Yet we have no Mitzvah to hate ancient Egypt. Other nations, both in in Biblical times and post Biblical, have been terrible to the Jewish people, but there is no expectation that we should hate or destroy those peoples.
Yet we have a Mitzvah, an obligation, to continually bear this grudge against Amalek until Amalek is destroyed.
There are explanations that Amalek was worst than others, but I want to focus on the principle here. The Torah is teaching us here that there is such a thing as incurable evil. Elements in the world exist which must be destroyed in order for civilization to prosper and live in peace. Forgiveness is wonderful. In many instances it is appropriate. But there are times it is counterproductive.
Hatred exists in the world, too much of it. There is a place for hatred. There are some things we must teach ourselves to hate, but we are not equipped to determine for ourselves what we should or shouldn’t hate. Most often hatred is personal and prejudiced. Hatred exists because children are trained from a young age to hate.
I have seen the murderous look of hatred in the eyes of Arab youth in Israel and I have seen the same look in the eyes of some Jewish youth. Both are unnerving. It takes years of indoctrination to build that hate and it will take a long time to undo it. But nothing frightens me like the naive pacifism expressed by well meaning people, often of liberal background. Such people are often cured of their pacifist leanings with age and wisdom, but that is not always the case. The Torah itself requires that we attempt peaceful negotiations before entering into battle. Interestingly, this is required even if the battle is against Amalek.
The idea that we should never pick up arms regardless of rampant corruption and pillage by others, however, is foreign and abhorrent to the Torah’s way of thinking. To allow evil to thrive and grow without actively opposing it is contrary to everything Judaism stands for. Amalek is less of a specific nation and more of a concept in our age. It is the embodiment of evil. This Mitzvah of zachor, of remembering, is a Mitzvah of raising to the forefront of our consciousness that not in all instances can we allow ourselves the luxury of live and let live. In the Ukraine they are saying we must prepare for war in order for peace to reign. There is a similar expression in Latin. (I know that because our squad leader in the sniper group insisted that we print this Latin phrase on our shirts). In conclusion, a quote by Edmond Burke: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”