Apparently, it is one of the most important mitzvos. There is no other mitzvah for which we have an absolute annual Torah-level obligation to hear directly from the Torah, and one of only six that we are required to think about at least once a day. But frankly, at least from the perspective of Jewish outreach, it is one of the most difficult for us to relate to. We are required to remember what Amaleik did to us as we left Egypt, and therefore never to forget to exterminate the nation of Amaleik from under the Heavens. No matter that according to most poskim the nation of Amaleik no longer exists as a discernible entity, after the extensive transfers of population by Sancheiriv; no matter that in virtually any practical case of meeting an actual Amalekite we would refrain from performing this mitzvah due to the enmity and anti-Semitism it would cause; no matter how difficult this would be for virtually any Jew to perform – the obligation to concentrate on this mitzvah remains in place.
Why am I thinking about this mitzvah as we approach the Days of Judgment? To be honest, it is not because I am doing repentance for not having killed any Amalekites this year. Rather, given that we read about this just before the Days of Awe, it got me thinking about its relevance to this time. Particularly so, as I have been reading the Targum of Yonasan ben Uziel this past year, who often offers startling and unusual comments for our consideration. The Torah describes the dastardly act of Amaleik thus:
“How [Amaleik] 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 (D’varim 25:18).”
Yonasan ben Uziel “translates”: Amaleik happened upon you on the way, and killed all of those among you who were considering turning away from my commandments. This refers to the men of the tribe of Dan who were engaged in idolatry. The Clouds of Glory expelled them, which caused them to be weary and tired, and the Amalekites would taunt them, and not fear Hashem.
In other words, Amaleik’s victims were egregious sinners – idolaters who were not tolerated by the holy Clouds of Glory (the same clouds that apparently could tolerate Dasan, Aviram, Korach, and other famous sinners. These sinners were banished from the camp, left to their own devices, and were subsequently set upon by Amaleik. Because of the attack on this small disreputable group of sinners, we are to bear eternal enmity for Amaleik and annihilate them if possible.)
Which, of course, begs the question: Why are we so protective of this bunch of sinners? So much so, that we must never forget or forgive those who hurt them? Why do we not say, “Well, since the Clouds of Glory saw fit to spew these sinners out as unworthy of being part of the greater Congregation, they should be left to eat the bitter fruit of their actions”? Why did we go to war to avenge them and do we take their memory so seriously some 3,500 years later?
In truth, Chazal cite a variety of reasons for our eternal animosity towards Amaleik – space does not permit a full discussion. Clearly, a main one is that we are never to tolerate pure evil – hence the connection between Parshas Zachor and Haman. It seems to me, however, that Yonasan ben Uziel is pointing us to an important aspect of our Nationhood: that we must embrace our sinners, and not write them off. Remember! They are also part of the Jewish people. They deserve our love and concern, and we must be prepared to fight for them, if they are threatened, as much as anyone else.
As Rav Soloveitchik famously said in his 1956 letter explaining the limits of cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews, that while we have our differences with them that must not be broached, in regard to the rest of the world, “k’lapei chutz, all groups and movements must be united. There can be no divisiveness in this area, for any division in the Jewish camp can endanger its entirety. In the crematoria, the ashes of chasidim and anshei maaseh were mixed with the ashes of radicals and free-thinkers, and we must fight against the enemy who does not recognize the difference between one who worships and one who does not.”
Perhaps the critically important lesson being emphasized by this mitzvah is the vital importance of Jewish unity. We must emphasize our obligation to defend our fellow Jews and to never forgive those who attack any of our brethren, even the spiritually lowliest.
This is a major theme of Yom Kippur. Before we can start our Holiest Day – just before Kol Nidrei – we make sure that we are able to pray together with the avaryanim – the sinners. We are not a complete people who can approach the Almighty unless we have an awareness that we – all of the Jewish people – are in the same boat together. We beseech the Almighty on behalf of all of us – we do not stand as worthier than anyone else. All of us desperately need His Grace and Compassion; together, k’dalim u’k’rashim dafaknu d’lasecha, as hopelessly poor and weak do we knock upon Your door.
We are living through a time of extraordinary divisiveness. The political battles going on both in America and in Israel are at fever pitch levels, and getting worse. It has gotten so bad that people are letting differences of opinion and views tear apart friendships, families, and close relationships. Within the Jewish world there is so much animosity and intolerance between those who are zealously religious and zealously secular, and among different shades in between. Although there are some wonderful people and organizations (such as the Ayelet HaShachar group that I work with) that are working hard at drawing hearts together, there is so much yet to accomplish.
When we merited having Chief Rabbi David Lau visit in our home some months ago, he emphasized that the most important way to work towards Jewish Unity was to remember the prayer that Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk recommended every morning before prayer: “Aderaba, place in our hearts that each of us see the good in others, and not their shortcomings, and that we should talk.” He did not say that they do not have deficiencies and shortcomings. They do. We all do. But we need to focus on the positive. And we need to “talk” to each other; to engage, to listen, and to discuss. Far too often we talk about other people, rather than talking to other people.
Perhaps on this Yom Kippur, we might ask the Almighty to help us bridge our differences, see the good and valuable in others – even those with whom we have deep and unbridgeable differences, and remember that we are one people who need each other and respect the strengths that different types of Jews bring to the people as a whole. As we look to the Dayan HaEmes, the Arbiter of Truthful Justice to review the merits of our cases for continued life – let us undertake to let Him be the only Judge; we will undertake to love every other Jew, and not to look for their faults. May we thus merit – Hashivah shoftayich k’va’rishonah – to come together under wise and deeply respected leaders who will unite us and lead us to a closer relationship with each other and with the Ribbono shel Olam, from which all blessings will surely come.
G’mar Chasimah Tovah!
Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer is a rabbi, attorney, and writer living presently in Forest Hills, and hoping to go on aliyah. He has served as rabbi in several congregations, and helps individuals with wills, trusts, and mediation.