Parshat Beshalach: Amalek and Moral Relativism

וַיִּבֶן מֹשֶׁה מִזְבֵּחַ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ ה’ נִסִּי: וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי יָד עַל כֵּס יָ-הּ מִלְחָמָה לַה’ בַּעֲמָלֵק מִדֹּר דֹּר
(שמות יז, טו-טז)

“Then Moses built an altar, and he named it The Lord Is My Miracle. And he said, “For there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal, [that there shall be] a war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation.” (Shemot 17:15–16)

Our parashah concludes with the above enigmatic verses, which offer no explanation of the nature of the war in question or where it will be fought. The Torah later clarifies matters in the book of Devarim:

You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt; how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God. [Therefore,] it will be, when the Lord, your God, grants you respite from all your enemies around [you] in the land that the Lord, your God, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget! (Devarim 25:17–19)

A plain reading of Scripture would have it that the commandment to obliterate Amalek is mostly concerned with the total physical destruction of the Amalekites. It would seem that this commandment was completely fulfilled with the killing of Agag, king of the Amalekites (I Shmuel 16). As for those who think that a remnant of Amalek survived Agag’s death, the Sages have already established that Sanacherib mixed up the nations, making it impossible for us to identify any person as an Amalekite, whom we are required to kill in keeping with the commandment (Mishnah Yadayim 4:4).

Despite these qualms, the Sages (Sanhedrin 20b) and, in their wake, the authors of the lists of the commandments (Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 188), consider the commandment to annihilate Amalek to be permanently applicable. This also seems to be implied by a verse from our parashah: [that there shall be] a war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation.

In light of all this, we must ask what significance the commandment to annihilate Amalek can have for our own times, given that everyone agrees that it cannot be fulfilled in practice. I believe that we can find a way to understand the significance of this commandment by contemplating the difference between fiction and reality.

Good and Evil – Or Shades of Grey

Amalek is portrayed in the biblical stories as the very incarnation of evil in the world, and that explains the uncompromising attitude toward the Amalekites. Amalek attacks Israel for no reason at all, cravenly picking off the weak stragglers. Similarly, in the Megillat Esther, Haman the Aggagite represents evil seeking to destroy and annihilate. Throughout the book, all of his actions are directed toward carrying out his fiendish plan, and no other aspect of his personality is made visible.

In these, as in some other biblical stories, we are presented with characters who are clearly either “good guys” or “bad guys.” Such characters do not seem to accurately reflect reality, in which matters are always more complicated.

Sometimes there is a little good mixed into the bad, and sometimes there is a little bad mixed into the good. It is hard to find a real person who is completely innocent or completely guilty. If so, why did the biblical narrative describe characters in such an artificial way?

It seems that the Torah is not always interested in offering an accurate reflection of reality; rather, it seeks to shape our worldview. Scripture creates a clear and structured universe of concepts in order to endow us with norms and values. Its stories present the distinction between good and evil in unequivocal terms, so that we can learn how to live in our own complex reality. It is the story that establishes a clear normative dichotomy – rather than one exactly reflecting the blended reality of good and evil in our world – that can help us correctly judge events.

The tendency of contemporary culture is completely at odds with that of this venue of the Torah. Today’s realistic literature sets itself up as a mirror of reality and, accordingly, sees its task as correctly portraying every hue and aspect of that reality. Even characters who serve in a defined role are depicted as having positive and negative features. In contrast, up until the beginning of the twentieth century, the popular literature that was common throughout the world and dominated wide swathes of society preserved the absolute categories of good and evil. It distinguished between the wicked ugly witch and the good beautiful fairy.

Choosing Good or BadToday’s fiction certainly offers a more accurate depiction of human life, but it lacks the absolute normative values found in earlier stories. If, in the past, literature served to delineate good and evil, today’s literature blurs the picture. It leaves no room for absolute values – being judgmental is itself the only surviving vice. In a world where everything is relative and complex, we stand perplexed and confused before the value-decisions posed to us by our lives.

Now we can understand why the commandment to annihilate Amalek must remain eternally valid. The significance of that commandment for our generation is its very discrimination between good and evil. Without the commandment to annihilate Amalek, we would lose the basis for making value judgments.

Confronted by a world of blurred values, we must set up the opposition between “Amalek” and “Haman” on the one hand, and “a day that is completely good” and “the Garden of Eden” on the other, a vision of the future in which there is no evil in the world, and the vision of the demise of all evil a world, that is perfect.

The sharp distinction between good and evil found in biblical stories is of eternal significance. It teaches us that these values actually exist in reality. In a world where everyone speaks the language of relativity, even foundational values can be so blurred that we become indifferent to the moral injustices happening around us. As opposed to that relativity, the very recognition of the existence of good and evil commands victory: a war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation.

This D’var Torah was originally published in Rav Bigman’s The Fire and the Cloud (Gefen Publishing, 2011, www.gefenpublishing.com), and appears here with permission.

Rav David Bigman
Rav David Bigman, a member of Beit Hillel, is Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, having previously served as Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim, and as Rabbi of Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa. He was one of the founders of Midreshet HaBanot b’Ein Hanatz”iv. He is active in issues pertaining to society and halacha, as well as dialogue between secular and religious Israelis.
 

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One Response to Parshat Beshalach: Amalek and Moral Relativism

  1. Michael Hochstein January 29, 2015 at 4:54 PM #

    The dvar Torah deals with the issue of relative vs absolute evil. I think we Jews have had no problem accepting Amalek as the paradigm of absolute evil. Our problem has been with the clash between the ethic/verdict in the story and the standard of Western civilization, The bible decrees death to an entire nation, even many generations after the crime was committed, when no perpetrators are alive. Western values would not tolerate executing children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the crimes of their ancestors, not matter how absolute the evil of the crimes.That issue needs clarification.

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