By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani
The Torah (Exodus 17:8-16) tells of an incident that happened to the newly freed Israelites shortly after they were rescued at the Sea of Reeds.
While encamped at an oasis called Rephidim a nomadic tribe led by Amalek attacked them for no apparent reason. Moses instructed Joshua to lead the Israelite warriors into battle against their surprise attackers while he stationed himself on a low hill. While standing on the hill, flanked by Aaron and Hur, Moses raised his hand and Joshua’s men prevailed against the Amalekites. Soon, however, Moses became weary and lowered his hand, an act that turned the tide of battle in Amalek’s favour. Aaron and Hur then placed a stone under Moses and had him sit on it. Then his two companions held up his hands until sunset when the Israelite soldiers defeated the enemy.
After the battle had ended G-d instructed Moses to write a document which would serve as a reminder of the event and G-d’s undertaking to utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Moses then built an altar, named it Adonai Nissi (“The Eternal is my banner”) and declared that G-d will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.
Deuteronomy (25:17-19) urges us to actively blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven and not to forget. The passage gives more detail of the attack on the nascent Israelite people. The Amalekites did not simply attack them head on; they attacked them when they were tired and hungry from their march. They attacked the feeble and the stragglers and displayed no fear of G-d. If there is such a thing as honour in battle, the Amalekites did not demonstrate it.
It is interesting to note that Amalek was the descendant of Esau, Jacob’s brother (Genesis 36:12-16). This godless tribe had attacked their relatives. It is this same tribe whose memory we are instructed to erase and against whom G-d is at war.
While a literal reading of the mitzvah to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven would be interpreted as divine sanction to commit genocide against those whom we perceive to be our enemy, I would posit that the life affirming values of Judaism forbid such an understanding. It is the memory of the Amalekites that must be erased, not the Amalekites themselves.
When our ancestors entered into a covenant with G-d at Mount Sinai they undertook to preserve and uphold the moral and ethical values imbedded in the Aseret HaDibrot, the ‘Ten Utterances’ and legislated by successive halachot. The actions of the Amalekites were the complete opposite of these values and unfortunately there are still many people of all faiths, nationalities and ethnic groups who epitomise the actions and morals of the arch enemies of Israel, and indeed all decent and upright people.
I write this article two days after the horrific and despicable terrorist attack in the city of Manchester, UK. Salman Abedi, a 23 year-old Manchester born man detonated an improvised explosive device in the Manchester Arena, killing himself and 22 innocents, many of them children. The youngest victim of this abhorrent act was eight year old Saffie Roussos. Many among the 64 victims have lost limbs. The murderer, who had ties with the so-called Islamic State, committed an Amalekite-like attack. The Arena was full of young families and groups of children attending a pop concert and Abedi waited until the end of the performance, while people were leaving the venue, to set off the bomb. Like the biblical Amalek, he attacked the vulnerable at a time when the security personnel had let down their guard (people are not generally searched when leaving an event).
This type of attack in the name of misguided religiosity is becoming a regular occurrence in Europe and displays the cowardice and cruelty that are an anathema to the values of all true religious people whether Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, and members of other faiths. Just as Amalek was a relation of Jacob, so these men and women who commit such acts of hatred can be found living among us. We who stand for morality and righteousness, who believe in the goodness of humanity and the eternal truths of Torah and other sacred texts, need to unite and stand firm against the Amaleks of this world. We must work to erase the darkness of hatred and radicalism
Since writing this article, another terrorist attack took place on London Bridge on 3 June in which eight people were murdered and dozens injured.