Exodus Religion and the Enemy

By Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy EilbergCommon wisdom has it that much violence in the world is driven by religious passion. Though there is good reason for this claim, deeper reflection reveals a more complex picture of what religions have to say about relationships with the enemy.

This week’s Torah portion brings us one of Judaism’s core texts on the paradigmatic enemy of the Jewish people: the people of Amalek. Shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, “Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim” (Exodus 17:8). This text gives us no reason to think of Amalek as a particularly heinous enemy, so the following passage is puzzling: “Then the Lord said to Moses … ‘I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven … God will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages’” (17:14, 17:16).

This was a violent period in Israelite history, as the people left Egypt and prepared to enter the Land of Israel. But why such extreme language with reference to this particular enemy? Why was Amalek’s attack so dreadful as to justify a promise of eternal war and judgment from God?

The Torah’s account of Amalek’s attack in Deuteronomy (25:17-19) gives us more information.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt, when they came upon you on the road and attacked the weak at your rear, when you were famished and weary, not fearing God … Therefore … blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.

This account hints at the heinousness of the attack: Amalek ambushed the weakest members of the Israelite people — the old, the young and the weak straggling at the rear, as the enormous caravan of weary, hungry Israelite refugees made their way out of Egypt. This is a description of a heartless villain, lacking the most basic human sensibility.

The figure of Amalek became the paradigm for the all-too-familiar wicked despots who sought to destroy us throughout the generations. The commandment to wipe out the memory of Amalek came to resonate deeply with the Jewish people as our history unfolded; Jews have identified Amalek with the most villainous enemies of their day, from Haman in the biblical book of Esther, to the Romans, medieval Christian oppressors, the Nazis and even contemporary enemies of the State of Israel. And for many Jews, the commandment not to forget (“Never Again”) is among the most compelling of Jewish communal imperatives.

A powerful stream of rabbinic tradition carries forward the Torah’s harsh promises. For example, according to the great medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides, the Jews are obligated to wipe out all descendants of Amalek and to sustain everlasting enmity and hatred for them. Other authorities remind us that with the passage of time, genealogical lines have become hopelessly intertwined, so the commandment becomes impossible to uphold and thus meaningless in practice.

But there is a very different stream of thought within Jewish tradition about how to relate to Amalek. Drawing on an ancient midrash, Rashi — perhaps the most revered of all medieval Jewish commentators — observes stunningly that Amalek attacked the Israelites at the rear of the camp at a time when the Israelites themselves were dishonest in their own commercial dealings.

In the midst of such unethical behavior, the Israelites at the rear became physically and spiritually separated from the rest of the camp, and without the support of the community, they became lost in sin, leaving them vulnerable to attack from behind. Most surprisingly, Rashi goes so far as to suggest that the phrase “did not fear God” (Deuteronomy 25:18)refers not to the Amalekite attackers, but to the Israelites themselves. Plainly, he is saying that the Israelites themselves were at least partially responsible for the attack.

Rashi’s interpretive shift makes a world of difference in the understanding of the commandment to remember Amalek. From this perspective, the imperative is not to rehearse the angry memory, not to hate or blame or demonize the wicked Amalek; they were only successful, in his view, because of our own moral and spiritual weakness.

Instead, the Torah is suggesting that our primary work is not to hate those who may seek to harm us, but to “fear God” — that is, to be vigilant about the state of our own souls; constantly seeking to purify our inner lives; cleansing our hearts of needless enmity, small-mindedness and self-importance, or anything that may obstruct our connection to God.

One Hasidic commentator, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, makes this line of reasoning even more explicit when he writes:

Not only are Jews commanded to wipe out Amalek, who is the descendant of Esau, but each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart. So long as the descendants of Amalek are in the world — and each of us is also a small world, so when the power of evil in each of us arises … Amalek is still in the world — then the reminder (to wipe out Amalek) calls out from the Torah. (Kedushat Levi on Deuteronomy 25:18).

When we become aware that there is Amalek in the world — that is, in the world of our own hearts — then we must hear the call to remember, to struggle against it, to return to goodness and to godliness. The eternal struggle against Amalek, according to Levi Yitzhak, is an inside job, a matter of our own ongoing work on ourselves.

What, then, is the teaching of Jewish tradition on relations with the most terrible enemies? As with most issues, our tradition is multivocal. A strong strain, for sure, emphasizes the imperative of self-defense and vigilance in the face of threats to our safety. But another thread, offered by venerable teachers within the tradition, suggests that relations with the enemy must also occasion deep self-critical reflection, assuming that we often contribute to the negative relationships in which we find ourselves.

It is easy to blame religion for zealotry and bloodshed, especially when the perpetrators themselves claim religious sanction for their acts. But there are multiple strands within every religion, some that emphasize the need for self-defense and even aggression in the face of evil, and others that teach the very opposite — that violence in the world is an occasion for the cultivation of deeper compassion, wisdom and awareness.

Some religionists around the world wreak havoc by harnessing the negative power of religion. But far more adherents of religion can and do live every day in ways that express religion’s power to promote peace, respect and understanding within the human family.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg is a special consultant for interfaith conversation at the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

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