Parshat Beshalach concludes with Amalek’s attack against Bnei Yisrael (17:8-16). In response to this vicious action, God designates Amalek as His mortal enemy, and (in Devarim 25:17-19) orders Bnei Yisrael to annihilate them. One must wonder, why does the Torah single out Amalek for destruction? Bnei Yisrael experienced conflicts with many nations (such as the Egyptians who had just enslaved them); what distinguished Amalek from all other enemies?
In order to understand the severity of the Amalekites’ actions, we must observe a key distinction between the vow to annihilate Amalek in Parshat Beshalach and its parallel in Devarim. In last week’s Parsha, God commits himself to eradicating Amalek, “Macho Emcheh Et Zecher Amalek Mitachat Hashamayim,” “I will totally eradicate the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens,” whearas in Devarim God commands us “Timcheh Et Zecher Amalek Mitachat Hashamayim,” “You shall eradicate….”. Perhaps the harsh response to the Amalekites’ actions indicates that they acted immorally towards both God and Bnei Yisrael. Indeed, the commentators identify both of these elements in several details of the narrative.
The Torah cryptically states that the Amalekites “came,” without explaining how or why they attacked. In Devarim, however, the Torah explains that the Amalekites targeted the “Necheshalim,” the weaklings. The Abarbanel comments that this tactic might reflect Amalek’s lack of regard for human decency; honorable nations declare war on enemy armies, whereas they Amalekites launched a sneak attack on the most vulnerable individuals. According to this understanding, the Torah views the Amalekites especially harshly because of their immoral behavior towards Bnei Yisrael. Alternatively, the Abarbanel adds, this underhanded military tactic might indicate the Amalekites’ lack of respect for God; they feared all but the weakest Jews, yet they did not fear the God who protected even the weakest Jews. Thus, Amalek’s true enemy is God Himself.
A similar ambiguity surrounds the significance of Moshe’s raised arms. The Torah recounts how Bnei Yisrael ultimately defeat Amalek because Moshe’s hands remained raised. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 29a) questions how the elevation of Moshe’s arms impacted the battle, and suggests that the elevated arms focused Bnei Yisrael on their faith in God, Who in turn helped them defeat Amalek. Thus, the true battle was waged between Amalek and God. On the other hand, the Abarbanel, after citing the Mishnah’s interpretation, further suggests that Moshe waved his arms and staff in order to boost his people’s morale, in the manner that a king raises his staff in order to encourage his troops. According to this interpretation, Bnei Yisrael were fighting a military battle against Amalek, without God’s overt involvement.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the Amalek’s character flaw is to focus on another phrase from Devarim 25:18 – “Velo Yarei Elokim.” At first glance, this verse would indicate that the Amalek’s fault lies in their lack of respect for God, and not in their unethical treatment of Bnei Yisrael’s weak. However, the biblical phrase Yirat Elokim (as opposed to Yirat Hashem) generally alludes to basic moral standards (see Breishit 20:11 and 42:18, Shemot 18:21, and Iyov 6:1, all of which indicate that Yir’at Elokim refers to basic moral standards, which the Torah expects from Jews and Gentiles alike). One who engages in murder, for example, is said to lack Yirat Elokim (Bereshit 20:11 and Shemot 1:17). Hence, “Velo Yarei Elokim” presumably refers to Amalek’s targeted attack of the weakest Jews, and not to a lack of respect for God.
In truth, though, the fact that the Torah refers to Amalek’s reprehensible conduct towards Bnei Yisrael as a lack of Yirat Elokim demonstrates that we cannot artificially separate Amalek’s religious worldview (in which they feared strong humans but did not fear God) from their low standard of interpersonal ethics. By shamelessly targeting the most vulnerable elements of Bnei Yisrael, the Amalekites showed that they lacked any sense of a Supreme Being Who represents a higher ethical standard. Thus, Amalek goes down in history as the arch-nemesis of both God and the Jewish People; in one attack, the Amalekites acted immorally towards Bnei Yisrael as human beings while simultaneously showing that they have no regard for the concept of ethical monotheism – “Vayezanev Becha Kol Hanecheshalim Acharecha…Velo Yarei Elokim.”
With this background in mind, we can better appreciate why Parshat Yitro opens with Yitro’s arrival. The Ibn Ezra (18:1) comments that the Torah juxtaposed the stories of Yitro and Amalek for the sake of contrast. The Torah calls for a relentless war against Amalek, while Yitro’s descendants enjoy a special relationship with Bnei Yisrael. The Torah characterizes Amalek as “Lo Yarei Elokim,” whereas Yitro insists that Moshe appoints judges who are “Yirei Elokim.” Through the contrast with Amalek, we see in Yitro the embodiment of the decency and morality that the Torah expects from Jews and non-Jews alike.