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This week, the nation of Israel finally leaves Egypt. Interestingly, even after years of genocidal oppression, it is not the Egyptians who end up as the Torah's least favorite people; that distinction goes to someone else. After the sea has been split, the Egyptians defeated and the Israelites are in the desert, on their way to the Land of Israel, they are suddenly attacked by a desert tribe: "And Amalek came, and fought with Israel at Rephidim". The Israelites, led by Joshua and inspired by Moshe - sitting on a hill above the battlefield with his hands raised to heaven - defeat the Amalekites. A relatively unimportant skirmish, one might think, just the way things are in the wild, wild Middle East. But, at the close of this episode, after the Israelites are victorious, the Torah tells us the following: "And God said to Moshe: write this, a reminder, in the book, and place it in the ears of Joshua: for I will surely wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. And Moshe built an altar and called it God Performed a Miracle for Me. And he said: with hand on God's throne - war for God with Amalek generation after generation".
This sentiment is recapitulated in Deuteronomy: "Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, when you left Egypt. How he encountered you on the road, and attacked you from behind - all the weak ones at the rear, and you were tired and weary - and he did not fear God. And it shall be that when the Lord your God gives you rest from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you must blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget".
After all the Egyptians did to the Jews - enslaving and oppressing them, and throwing their male babies into the river - the Torah expresses no such eternal, unbending enmity towards them. There are, it is true, laws against returning to Egypt, as that would constitute a symbolic negation of the Exodus, and against marrying Egyptians, but laws like that apply to other nations as well, and are not unique to the Egyptians. The general attitude towards Egypt, which even includes a prohibition against hating tham (D'varim, 23;7) is certainly nowhere near as draconian as that expressed by the law of eternal war against Amalek. In fact, this law is the 'worst' law in the Torah, the most difficult one for many people to accept, for it demands the killing of all Amalekites; men, women, and children, even their animals, everywhere and anywhere, always and forever, which many seem, not surprisingly, as genocidal racism.
It is true that much of the sting was taken out of this law many centuries ago by a number of progressive halachic decisions, such as the opinion that we no longer have any idea who the members of this nation actually are, and the Maimonidean understanding of this law which limits it to when the Amalekites remain belligerent, and are unwilling to live peacefully with Israel, but still, the anger, the hatred towards Amalek is remarkable, especially in light of the relatively low-key approach to our first oppressors, the Egyptians. What is it that was so terrible about the behavior of Amalek? Why is the fact that they attacked the Israelites in the desert at this juncture so worthy of censure?
There are a number of possible explanations advanced by the classical commentaries. I hope I am not doing them an injustice by lumping them together and summarizing them this way: after the miraculous, divinely-orchestrated exodus from Egypt, the nations of the area were in awe of God and His people, the Israelites. Amalek did not, for some reason, share this fear, and attacked them anyway. Afterwards, the other nations felt that even though Amalek was actually defeated, they had proved that the Israelites were only human, and could be attacked, and therefore, from time to time, these other nations did so. Amalek's aggression, therefore, was against the Jews as God's nation, and, by extension, against God.
It would seem that the inhuman behavior of the Egyptians - the murder of the male children and the brutal enslavement of an entire people - is seen as less worthy of eternal condemnation because it lacks an ideological dimension, whereas Amalek's attack against the Jews in the desert is so horrible precisely because it goes beyond what the Egyptians did, and enters the realm of ideas and ideals. The Egyptians were guilty of xenophobia, took advantage of defenseless strangers, killed and enslaved them, but the Torah seems to understand this type of behavior as the way of the world. Nations behave that way. It is wrong, God is against it, and appears on the stage of history as He who frees the slaves and punishes their oppressors. But what Amalek did was much worse: to consciously attack the people of God, the people whose role in the world became, with the exodus, to announce that there is a God, a God who frees the slaves and punishes the enslavers, who has chosen the Jewish people and will bring them to the homeland which He promised to their forefathers, the first monotheists. The fact that the Amalekites attacked a peaceful, law abiding people is not the crucial thing; what is so awful about them is their theological position, their attack, via his people, on the God who revealed himself in history at the God of the Exodus.
The Torah, in singling out Amalek for eternal damnation, would seem to think that the run-of-the-mill human rights abuses perpetrated by the Egyptians are not as blameworthy as Amalek's ideological attack on the Jewish people as God's representatives in the world. This position seems to, in a way, diminish the absolute value of a human life, and place a higher value on a people - or an individual - with a mission, with a belief-system and an ideology. Attacking the Jewish people as God's representatives is worse than attacking them as simply human beings; for this reason the response to Amalek is so much more drastic. The implication is that we achieve our real value as human beings only when we represent something more than just our own humanity, when we stand for higher and greater truths than the simple truth that we are people and deserve to be free and un-oppressed. That we deserve those things is true; that is the message of the Exodus. That we are more human - are 'worth' more - when we stand for something, when we represent the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Exodus who set the slaves free and punished their oppressors, is the message of our ongoing battle with Amalek.
Rabbi Shimon Felix