Wiping Out Amalek
All humanity recoils at the horror of the Holocaust, the calculated Nazi policy to wipe out every Jewish man, woman and child. But how do you respond to someone who says: "Isn’t it hypocritical to decry what the Nazis did, when Jewish tradition also calls for holocausts, like the biblical commandment to wipe out the nation of Amalek? How could God – who is supposed to be kind, giving and good – tell His people to murder an entire people for something their parents did a long time ago? How is this any better than the Nazis or the jihadists of today?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
People can greatly misconstrue when quoting things out of context. Practical application of Jewish law cannot be learned from the literal text of the Bible. There is an accompanying oral law (the Talmud), and only in this context can understand this mitzvah.
Imagine a refugee family leaving their belongings behind and trudging down the road in search of another place to live. The children, who are tired and weak from all the traveling, would be considered especially vulnerable. Imagine now that terrorists brazenly attack the children. That is Amalek.
Amalek came and ferociously attacked the weak Jews fleeing Egypt, as it is written, "Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt, that he encountered you on the way, and he struck those lagging at the rear, when you were tired and exhausted, and he did not fear God." (Deuteronomy 25:18)
Although the Torah uses a "clean language" to describe what Amalek did to the Jewish people, the Talmud and Midrash fill in the details: the Amalekites raped, castrated and murdered the Jewish men (Sifrei, Tanchuma 10; Rashi – Deuteronomy 25:17). This was hardly a way to treat a people who just suffered hundreds of years of slavery and were wandering in a great desert.
In spite of this, we were and are obligated to call for peace with any nation, including Amalek, before attacking them. Once the Amalekites refused to agree to a peace treaty, and wanted to obliterate all of the Jewish men, woman and children, there was no choice but to declare war on the entire Amalek nation. (Maimonides – Laws of Kings 6:4)
But Amalek wasn't simply a nation of murderous criminals. They were fighting against God Himself, as the verse say, they “did not fear God" (Deuteronomy 25:18). When the Jews were in Egypt, everyone had heard of the great miracles that occurred such as the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. The Jewish people were a reflection of the Divine Will and Purpose. An attack on the Jews was by default and attack on God. This was manifested by the fact that Amalek threw the castrated organs toward Heaven, in defiance of God, as if to say, “We despise the holy covenant of Brit Milah.”
The Talmud explains the language of the verse: "[Amalek] happened (karcha) upon you..." (Deut. 25:18). The Hebrew word karcha is related to the word kar, meaning "cold." That is to say: Amalek cooled the Jews off. When the Jews came out of Egypt, all the nations were afraid to challenge the God of the Jews. But Amalek came, did battle, and – even though they were defeated militarily – they nevertheless paved the way for others.
By way of analogy, it is as if the Jewish people were a boiling hot bath that nobody was able to enter. Then along came a stranger and jumped in. Even though he suffered bad burns, he cooled it off ("kar") for others to follow. It is this self-sacrifice to harm the Jews that typifies Amalek’s approach throughout history.
To understand Amalek, it is helpful to go back to the time of Jacob our forefather. Jacob had a twin brother Esav, who was a lifelong rival – so much so that Esav sought to kill Jacob. (see Genesis 27:41)
The Midrash says that when Esav was getting old, he called his grandson Amalek and said: "I tried to kill Jacob but was unable. Now I am entrusting you and your descendents with the important mission of annihilating Jacob's descendents – the Jewish people. Carry out this deed for me. Be relentless and do not show mercy."
This conflict is much deeper than just a "sibling rivalry." Philosophically, Amalek and the Jewish people stand at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Talmud offers another explanation of the phrase Amalek “happened (karcha) upon you" (Deut. 25:18). Karcha can also mean coincidence or happenstance. Amalek's entire philosophy is that there is no design or providence in the world. Everything is haphazard, dictated by chance, luck and fate. That's why the verse continues: "And [Amalek] did not fear God."
On the other hand, Jacob and his descendents the Jews represent conscience and morality. The world has purpose and meaning and every individual is created in the image of God. From this foundation, the Jews introduced to the world concepts like monotheism, equality for all people, and universal education. This is the essence of what the prophet describes as being a "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6).
While Jacob believes that God runs the world and there is an absolute standard of morality, Esav/Amalek believes that life is random – and morality is therefore subjective. This hatred for the message of morality actually forms the basis of all anti-Semitism. Just as the Jews stand for the principle of caring for the vulnerable and weak, Amalek is the opposite – “attacking the weakest people trailing behind" (Deut. 25:18).
True to his mission, Amalek has historically tried to destroy the Jews. The first traces of Amalek are found when they fought against the Jewish people as they left Egypt circa 1300 BCE, attacking the Jews out of pure hatred – Amalek lived in a distant land and was under no imminent threat (Exodus 17:8-15). Amalek resurfaced later in history, in a battle against King Saul (1-Samuel ch. 15). Again, Amalek arose headed by the wicked Haman who commanded an attempted genocide against the entire Jewish people, as recorded in the Book of Esther.
So what happened to Amalek after that?
Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, circa 500 BCE, mixed up all the nations (Talmud – Brachot 28a). When he conquered a country, he would take a large segment of the population and send them to other countries. This caused confusion among the population so they would never be able to muster enough strength to cause a rebellion. In this way, Sennacherib was able to retain control. Many of these peoples intermarried with each other and their old nationalities became mixed together. Amalek also was mixed in at this time. This means the identification of a particular individual or group, as Amalek by the means of genealogy is absolutely impossible.
Does Amalek exist today?
The story is told about the great Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the revered spiritual leader who lived in the Old City of Jerusalem at the turn of the century. When the German Kaiser Wilhelm visited Jerusalem in 1898, Rabbi Sonnenfeld refused to greet him. He explained that the Kaiser exhibited the classic signs of Amalek (a tradition passed down from the Vilna Gaon).
Shockingly, the Talmud (Megillah 6b) identifies a nation called "Germamia" as the descendents of Amalek. Just as in biblical days, when Amalek showed tremendous self-sacrifice to harm the Jews, so did the Nazis. With the invasion of Hungary in 1944, top German military officers determined that railway lines must be prioritized to transport vital troops and equipment to the battlefront. The Wehrmacht urged Hitler to provide this infusion of desperately-needed supplies. Ignoring their warnings, Hitler instead gave orders to allocate the precious rail-lines to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews en masse to the extermination camps. Historians acknowledge this decision as a key factor in further debilitating the German war effort. Hitler, it seems, regarded the killing of Jews even more important than winning World War II.
Today, we are not equipped to identify any specific individual or nation as Amalek. Therefore, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes, the mitzvah is to remember what Amalek did, and to eradicate the trait they displayed of acting cruel and presumptuously against God in the face of all reason.