Three times a day we recite the Pasuk composed by David HaMelech which states that Hashem extends His mercy to all. We also declare that Tzaddik Hashem BeChol Derachav, that Hashem acts only with justice and fairness. Accordingly, some find it difficult that Hashem commands us to utterly destroy the people of Amaleik (Devarim 25:19 and Shmuel I 15:2), including their women and children. They ask, as did Avraham Avinu, “HaShofeit Kol HaAretz Lo Ya’aseh Mishpat,” “The judge of the entire world, should not act justly?!” (BeReishit 18:25).
The First Steps in Resolving the Quandary
The first step to understanding this obligation is noting that the Brisker Rav argues that the Mitzvah to destroy Amaleik is limited to a situation where one receives a specific command from Hashem, through a Navi of well-established credibility, to do so. His proof is from the fact that Sha’ul attacked Amaleik only after Hashem specifically ordered Sha’ul to attack through Shmuel. If the command to destroy Amaleik applies in all situations then Hashem would not have ordered Shmuel to tell Sha’ul to destroy Amaleik. Hashem never issued a command to Shmuel to tell Sha’ul to respect his parents or place Mezuzot on his doorposts. This is because these Mitzvot apply at all times. The Mitzvah to destroy Amaleik, conversely, is of extremely limited application.
Moreover, the Kesef Mishneh (to Rambam Hilchot Melachim 6:4) specifically writes that a member of the people of Amaleik is no longer defined as “Amaleik” in regards to the Mitzvah of elimination, if that individual accepted upon himself the seven Mitzvot of Bnei Noach. In other words, one is not considered Amaleik if he accepts upon himself the very basic rules of humanity such as refraining from murder, adultery, and idolatry.
Amaleik Contrasted with Other Nations - Ramban
Although we have severely limited the application of destroying Amaleik, one wonders how Hashem could issue such a command in any circumstance. In order to answer this question we must first resolve another question - why is Hashem more disturbed with Amaleik than any other nation? After all, even regarding Mitzrayim who tortured and enslaved us for many decades, Hashem commands us to not hate them since they served as our hosts for many years (Devarim 23:8).
Ramban (at the conclusion to his commentary to Parashat BeShalach) offers two answers. The first answer is based on the timing of Amaleik’s attack. Amaleik was the first nation to attack us in the wake of Keri’at Yam Suf. Keri’at Yam Suf (as noted in Shirat HaYam) made an extraordinary impression on the nations of the world. The nations were in awe of us. Amaleik attacked us at that point even though we were not even remotely close to their area, as the Torah (BeMidbar 13:29) records that Amaleik resides in the Negev, and Bnei Yisrael were much further south, in the middle of the Sinai. Ramban explains that they attacked us since they sought to battle Hashem and His reputation.
This idea is expressed in the well-known Mashal (parable) presented by Rashi (to Devarim 25:18). Rashi compares Amaleik’s attack to one who enters a burning hot bath that everyone feared entering lest he be scalded by the searing heat. This bold individual brazenly jumped in the scorching bath and although he was burned he set a precedent for others to not fear entering the exceedingly hot bath. Amaleik was upset at the enhancement of Hashem’s reputation as a result of Keri’at Yam Suf. Amaleik waged war simply to moderate the great impression that was created. Amaleik’s actions to deliberately thwart the enhancement of Hashem’s name and reputation are utterly abominable and deserving of the most severe punishment.
Ramban’s second answer is that Hashem regards Amaleik’s attack as repulsive since Amaleik, unlike Mitzrayim, is our relative (Amaleik is the grandson of Eisav, BeReishit 36:12). The Torah expects relatives to take responsibility for their kin (VaYikra 25:49) and views with utmost gravity the attack of a relative on his vulnerable kin. Interestingly, Ramban (Devarim 23:5) offers a similar explanation as to why Hashem regards Amon and Moav with such disdain. They hired Bil’am and refused us bread and water despite the fact that our ancestor Avraham placed his life in great danger to save their ancestor Lot.
Rav Moshe Soloveitchik’s Approach to Amaleik
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik cites from his father (although this idea is commonly attributed to Rav Chaim Soloveithcik, the Rav’s grandfather, the Rav specifically told me that the idea originates with his father Rav Moshe) that Amaleik is more a concept than a nation. He cites as proof the contrasting manner in which Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 5:4-5) presents the Mitzvot to destroy Amaleik on the one hand and the seven nations of Kena’an on the other hand.
Regarding the nations of Kena’an, Rambam writes that they have ceased to exist. Radbaz (commenting ad loc.) explains that this is because of the Assyrian emperor Sancheirev’s policy of population transfer of the nations he conquered dissolving the national identities of these nations (Berachot 28a). Curiously, Rambam does not make such a statement regarding Amaleik even though their national identity should have been upset by Sancheirev, just as happened to the seven Kena’ani nations. Rav Moshe Soloveitchik explains that this is because one is defined as an Amalekite even if one is not a descendant of the Biblical nation of Amaleik. Rav Soloveitchik argues that any individual or nation who expresses baseless hatred for the Jewish people is defined as an Amaleikite. Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik regarded the Nazis as members of Amaleik, a concept that has been widely accepted amongst our people.
Evidence to Rav Soloveitchik’s Approach to Amaleik
Chazal (e.g. Megilah 29a, with Rashi s.v. UMafsikim) seem to agree with this idea, as they regard Haman as an Amalekite despite his living long after the demise of Sancheirev and the Assyrian Empire. Chazal base this assertion on the fact that Megilat Esther repeatedly refers to Haman as “Agagi.” The only other time the name Agag appears in Tanach is the king of Amaleik upon whom Sha’ul HaMelech waged war (Shmuel I 15), clearly linking Haman with Amaleik (although one could argue that Haman had specific knowledge of his biological descent from Agag).
Indeed, the fact that Hashem states at the end of Parashat BeShalach that the war against Amaleik is eternal (“MiDor Dor”) is another obvious proof to Rav Soloveichik’s definition of Amaleik. Hashem knew in advance that Sancheirev would come and disrupt national identities, yet He describes the war on Amaleik as eternal. If the war on Amaleik were to be solely based on lineage, it would be impossible to pursue post-Sancheirev.
One other proof is a strange phenomenon occurring in Sefer Shemuel I. In Perek 15 we find Amaleik nearly annihilated and yet in Perek 30 of the same Sefer, after the passing of only a few years, reconstituted as a nation and attacking David HaMelech’s camp. We must conclude that Amaleik does not refer to the descendants of the people whose attack on us is recorded at the end of Parashat BeShalach. Rather, Amaleik is a code word for any individual or nation who acts with complete disregard of morality, similar to the nation that launched an unprovoked attack against us after Keri’at Yam Suf
Solving the Moral Difficulty
Rav Soloveitchik’s concept resolves our question as to why Amaleik differs from any other nation. The answer is that the command to eradicate Amaleik transcends the concept of national identity. Any individual or nation has the potential to deteriorate into Amaleik.
The concept of eradicating Amaleik, in part, is the elimination of any hint of Amaleik behavior and even thought from our personalities and our societies. Amaleik teaches us that man can descend into the moral abyss if he does not exercise proper care and caution.
In regard to Hashem commanding us to wage a war of complete annihilation against Amaleik, we assert that it is sometimes an act of kindness to destroy a thoroughly evil nation. Of course, only Hashem can determine when a nation has reached such a nadir and deserves to be utterly destroyed. Nonetheless, there are times when humans must decide whether in the course of eliminating a thoroughly evil individual it is acceptable to also kill his wife and children if there is no other option to eliminate that evil individual. For example, in the Israel-Gaza War of 2008-2009, an arch Hamas terrorist who organized and encouraged unprovoked attacks on innocent Israelis realized that the Israelis had finally located him standing alone and were about to kill him. He immediately retreated into his home where his wife and children were located at the time, thinking that the Israelis would not kill him in such a circumstance. However, the Israeli military command determined that since the terrorist was so dangerous and thoroughly committed to continuing to inflict great harm upon Israelis, that it would obliterate his house, thereby not only killing the arch-terrorist but his wife and children as well.
The Mitzvah of Amaleik sanctions, nay commands, moral nations eliminating egregious evil-doers, even if doing so requires the deaths of women and children, if otherwise unavoidable. Israel’s 2008-2009 and 2012 Gaza Wars have, Baruch Hashem, restored relatively normal life to Israel’s southern regions after years of being a living nightmare. Although women and children were unavoidably killed in war, the alternative was an intolerable life for Israel’s southern residents. Had causing civilian deaths been forbidden in all circumstances, then terrorists could simply locate themselves amongst women and children thereby obtaining legal and moral immunity from any consequences for their attacks on innocents.
The Mitzvah of Amaleik rejects granting moral immunity to evildoers who shield themselves among innocents. It commands us to resolutely eliminate evil and evildoers from the world. Israel’s Gaza Wars of 2008-2009 and 2012 were actually acts of kindness as were the Allied attacks on the Nazis during World War II, as they removed intense evil from the world, even though some innocents were unavoidably killed in those attacks. We pray for a time that all the nations of the world eradicate the Amaleik aspects of their societies, thereby eliminating the need to wage war against them.