If we as Jews believed in a hell, Amalek would have a special place in it.
Since we don’t, we take care in every generation to blot out Amalek’s name. It’s a level of disdain we retain for the worst of the worst. Amalek makes it to the top of our list of enemies. So who was Amalek and why is he the focus of all our ire?
We read about Amalek in Parashat B’shalach. As the first to attack the Israelites once we are freed from Egypt and wandering through the desert, Amalek gains some level of notoriety. But to be the first in the long line of many is not particularly noteworthy. In M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Rabbi Eliezer of Modi’in suggests that our heightened disgust originates on account of the tactics Amalek used in the attack. “Amalek ‘sneaked’ under the edges of the cloud and snatched the souls of Israel and killed them,” (as the Torah hints later in Deuteronomy) — “When you were weary and worn out, [Amalek’s army] met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God” (M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Amalek, on Exodus 17:8).
Our contempt for Amalek runs deep because he targeted the weak. Moral outrage at those who take advantage of the vulnerable still holds true in society today. We hold a special level of contempt for those who abuse children, the elderly, and vulnerable populations like refugees.
And yet, even as we are told to hold a special level of contempt for Amalek, we are cautioned not to let our moral outrage run amok. When we fight Amalek, we do so standing on the moral high ground.
When Joshua leads our people in fighting Amalek, he gets the benefit of divine intervention. As long as Moses keeps his arms up, Joshua is guaranteed to win.
“And Joshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of his sword” (Exodus 17:13). With these odds, it’s curious how mitigated Joshua’s actions are. We expect all-out annihilation, so the language of “weakening” (chalash) seems too tame for a fight with our single most-despised enemy.
Why, if this enemy is the worst of the worst, doesn’t Joshua wipe it out completely? Rashi explains what it meant to weaken Amalek’s army. Joshua “cut off the heads of the mighty men and left only the weak amongst them” (Rashi on Exodus 17:13). Joshua did not kill all of them, he left the weak men alive: thus Amalek was made weak, and powerless for further mischief.
Joshua does the exact opposite of Amalek. He does not target the weak. He does not attack the stragglers. He focuses his effort on the people who are legitimate threats. He maims the army only as much as is needed to ensure the safety of the Israelites. He spares the vulnerable among Amalek’s people.
What’s even more fascinating is that Rashi attributes this timid reaction directly to God. “From this we may learn that they acted according to the expressed pronouncement of [God] (otherwise they would, in the stress of battle, not have so discriminated)” (Rashi on Exodus 17:13).
Had God not intervened, Joshua and the Israelites would likely have killed Amalek’s people indiscriminately. The Israelites would have been responsible for the slaughter of children, the elderly, and other innocents.
We needed God’s help to win. We also needed God’s help to make sure that we did not become the very thing that we despise in our pursuit of victory.
When we find ourselves in a fight, how easy is it to lose sight of anything but winning? How many times have we said or done something that we regret because we were so singularly focused on the objective of not losing? Those actions may have come from a place of moral certainty — of knowing that we were right. But there’s an ugly side to moral certainty. If left unchecked, it can blind us to the humanity in our adversaries. We can cede the moral high ground by so desperately fighting to keep it.
It is for this reason that God chides the angels for rejoicing at the drowning of the Egyptians (Babylonian Talmud, M’gillah 10b). It is for this reason that we diminish our joy by removing a drop of wine from our cup at a Passover seder to empathize with the suffering of the Egyptians.
God reminds us that our goal should never be the defeat of another. If someone else’s defeat is the byproduct of our survival, so be it. But victory as its own objective is misguided.
How we win is just as important as whether we win. We shouldn’t lose sight of the humanity of our enemy, for if we do, we are in danger of losing sight of our own.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, in Beverly Hills, CA, and former executive director and board member of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.