By Rabbi Saul Oresky
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19.
Ki Teitzei is bookmarked by references to warfare. Its opening verse (“Ki teitzei la-milchamah al oyvecha — When you take the field against your enemies…”) goes on to dictate how a female captive whom the victorious soldier desires is to be treated. While barbaric by our standards, this treatment was “liberal” for its time.
Ki Teitzei concludes with the following passage: “Zachor et asher asah l’cha Amalek b’derech b’tzetchem miMitzrayim — Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt.” And, commanding the annihilation of the Amalekites, ends with the words “Lo tishkach! Do not forget!”
As if we could! The latter passage, which we also read as the maftir for the Shabbat preceding Purim, reminds us to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”
If this implies that we will always have enemies, whom we must destroy, we hardly need the reminder; Amalek has come to symbolize all the enemies of the Jews throughout the ages. Haman, for instance, the quintessential Jew-hater, is called “an Agagite” in Megillat Esther, Agag being the Amalekite king later executed by Samuel in Chapter 15 of First Samuel.
Destroying our enemies has not historically been in our power. Thankfully, pursuing destruction generally has not been our chosen course even when we have had the ability. More often than not, as a people we have taken the path of peace, except when pushed to wage war, which the State of Israel, unfortunately, has too frequently had to do.
Yet, the Torah reminds us that, even during wartime, not all actions are permitted —rape (still a common method of war today), for instance, is forbidden. While the Israel Defense Forces’ ideal of tohar haneshek (purity of arms) is cited more often in its breach than in its observance, it remains IDF’s official policy, and is indeed its aspiration. Is it even possible to uphold such ideals when the playing field is so uneven, when they are not held or even acknowledged by all sides in a conflict, when barbarism in battle rules the day?
It is possible, though difficult, and essential that we uphold these ideals, because the cost of not doing so is high. A tiny fraction of that price is the loss of public admiration; Israel often sees itself as having long ago lost the battle for public approval, anyway.
The far greater toll is on the individual, because the real danger of immoral military behavior is that of becoming Amalek. What was Amalek’s great sin, earning the curse of promised genocide? It is that they attacked the stragglers, the powerless Israelites at the rear of the column, the aged and the infirm. It was a craven act of unspeakable cowardice.
They did not “fear God,” as our portion claims. When we allow ourselves to take advantage of the powerless, how are we better than Amalek?
Perhaps the Torah is reminding us to not automatically take “the nuclear option” in conflicts of any sort, be they military or political, to not resort to the bludgeon when a gentle word could suffice and to practice restraint, even when pressed. Remember Amalek — and don’t become him.
Rabbi Saul Oresky is the spiritual leader of Mishkan Torah in Greenbelt.