By Rabbi Ed Feld
It is natural that some people find the special reading on the coming Shabbat, March 15, of Deuteronomy 25:17-20 regarding the wiping out of the memory of Amalek dificult to understand, or even somewhat off-putting. The wiping out of a whole people feels too much like collective punishment, even genocide, and though we recognize that there is evil in the world which we must oppose, the absolute voice of the reading feels so harsh that it becomes a source of deep unease. Hasidic literature can be helpful in recovering some meaningfulness in reading about Amalek.
Many Hasidic authors talk about the evil within us, within each one of us. Remembering Amalek becomes a reminder of the tendencies we all have: jealousy, the need to control, the use of unworthy tactics in opposing those whom we would like to defeat. There is evil in the world which we ought to oppose. The terrorists who strap themselves with bombs, walk into cafes, and blow up the men and women who are there sipping their morning coffee or drinking their afternoon tea accompanied by their small children and baby strollers need to be defeated with every weapon at our disposal. (Cultivating the local population seems along with military security seems to be the best way – not the simple exercised of brute force.) But we need to also recognize how in the fight against evil, the evil tendencies within us can gain power over us.
Why do we torture when so many skilled interrogators tell us that it is certainly not the best way to extract information from detainees? Information derived from torture is likely to be misleading. Those who have been trained to resist torture know how to confuse their interrogators with half-truths. So why do we do use torture and the degradation of prisoners as a first resort? We might not understand the full psychology of the torturer, but surely there is a wish to get back at the enemy, to humiliate those who are captured so that we know and they know that we are superior, stronger. Jacob Timeman reports regarding his arrest by the Argentinean junta, "…that torture session to soften a man up always followed immediately upon his arrest, though in some cases any days elapsed between torture session and interrogation. Other prisoners were never even interrogated." Breaking the person, humiliating him or her, becomes more important than obtaining the information we need to fight the war we need to win.
Remembering Amalek then ought to remind us how in fighting evil it is so easy for us to allow the forces within us that can commit evil to take control. These are thoughts that were inspired by a teaching of the contemporary Hasidic master, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, author of the Netivot Shalom. Here is a loose translation of his teaching: The essential reason for reading the Chapter of Remembrance/Parashat Zachor whose subject matter is the wiping out of Amalek is attachment to God. Amalek is the root of the hard shell which hides that which is good. It is the source of a poison through which evil comes into the world. And so it is written, "God wars with Amalek in each generation," for the name of God is not whole nor is the throne of God complete till the seed of Amalek is wiped out.
The soul of any religious person is not able to achieve the appropriate attachment to God so long as there is impurity in the world. That is why the Torah states this as God’s war since this is not to be simply understood as a war of Israel with its enemies... Each day there is a war against Amalek -- this is the inner meaning of the mitzvah -- for this is our task to wipe out the evil which is in us and which takes root and spreads its poison. We can wipe it out if we absolutely oppose the tendencies to evil that are within it. We should never assent to the evil within us and the evil in the world, for the essence of creation is the that all the earth should be filled with the knowledge of God and the spirit of impurity removed….[Therefore] we read this chapter each year at the moment when creation is renewed along with the covenant of God and Israel.