August 23, 2019 |

Defeating Evil: Thoughts on the Arizona Massacre

One week ago we saw an act of pure evil in the world. When we hear of such an act it is often emotionally devastating and depressing. We are all affected by it. I want to share with you some thoughts about how we can respond to that terrible act in a spiritual manner.

The murderer in Arizona who did the act might have been mentally ill and thus perhaps we cannot categorize him as pure evil, but the act itself of intentionally killing innocent people in such a barbaric manner is pure evil. How can a person take a gun and kill in such a manner? It is beyond comprehension. It is pure evil.

In the wake of these murders many suggestions have been made as to how we can prevent future killings and we should listen carefully to these suggestions.

But this week’s portion makes one thing clear: the idea of pure evil existing in the world is something that has been with us since the time of the Torah.

This week’s portion tells us about Amalek. Amalek attacked the Jewish people after they crossed the sea and were enjoying our first steps of freedom. Amalek is defined by the Torah as pure evil. They are a nation that needs to be destroyed and wiped off the earth.

The rabbinic commentators debate whether this commandment is still in force and whether the actual nation of Amalek still exists in the world.

In the years after the Holocaust, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that Amalek is still in existence. The reason for this is because the verse states: Ki yad al kes y-ah milchamah la-Hashem be-amalek mi-dor la-dor, The Hand is on God’s throne. God shall be at war with Amalek for all generations.”

Rashi explains that “The Hand is on God’s throne” means that God is making an oath that there will be a war with Amalek for all generations until such time as evil is eradicated from the world. The term “God’s throne” is written in an incomplete manner, kes instead of kiseh, and y-ah instead of the full four letter name of God. This means that God’s throne will be incomplete and His name will be incomplete until Amalek is totally wiped off the earth. “For all generations,” means that God is still waging war with Amalek.

Furthermore, Rav Soloveitchik notes that Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah that the seven Cananite nations no longer exist, as they were mixed up amongst the other nations of the world. However, Maimonides never wrote that this same principle applies with respect to Amalek and the implication therefore is that even though we are many years distant from the time of the Bible, Amalek is still in the world.

Thus, by virtue of the fact that evil still exists in the world, Rav Soloveitchik concludes that Amalek must also still exist. And so the war against Amalek is literally still continuing to this day.

How do we know who is Amalek? Rav Soloveitchik and many other rabbis broaden out the category of Amalek and argue that it applies to any nation that is dedicating to destroying the Jewish people and does not fear God (as the Torah states elsewhere about Amalek, they are: lo yareh elokim).

Famously, Rav Soloveitchik applied this teaching to Nazi Germany and even went so far as to apply some of the biblical rules of Amalek to Nazi Germany. The rule is that one may not derive material benefit from the products of Amalek. In light of this, Rabbi Soloveitchik told Ben Gurion that he was not permitted to accept reparation funds from Germany after World War II.

Ben Gurion did not listen to Rav Soloveitchik. And some of Rav Soloveitchik’s later students say that many years Rav Soloveitchik recanted from this position once he saw how much of a salutary effect the reparations had on the infrastructure of Israel.

Regardless, the important factor is that many rabbis broaden out the concept of Amalek.

For our purposes today we need to be very careful before broadening out Amalek and applying it to a specific nation. It is extremely dangerous and when misapplied can lead to evil in its own right.

I think that Amalek represents pure evil and this is how we should understand the idea of Amalek as recorded in this week’s portion. It represents the Torah’s teaching to us that evil will exist in the world until such time as the Messiah comes to complete God’s throne.

So when we come to grips with such horrible tragedies like the murders this past week in Arizona, we remember that the Torah already told us that we can expect that there will be pure evil.

The Torah not only tells us that evil will exist but we can gain insight from the Amalek story as to how we can react to the existence of evil in the world.

The Torah portion offers three reactions that we should have when we see Amalek. In doing so, the Torah is offering us a blueprint as to how we can deal with the evil we experience in this world.

First, the Torah tells us we must wage battle with Amalek. Moshe says to Joshua, “bechar lanu anashim ve-tze hilachem be-amalek, select some men for us and go out and wage war with Amalek.”

From this we learn that we are commanded to wage war with evil. We must not ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. We must not retreat in the face of evil. Rather, we must “go out” and battle it.

The first step in defeating evil is recognizing it and being willing to acknowledge that it is evil.

It is easy to forget this responsibility. This is why the Torah goes out of its way to constantly remind us not to forget our responsibility: “ketov zot zikaron, write this as a remembrance in the book.” And, again in Sefer Devarim: Zachor et asher asah lekhah amalek, remember what Amalek did to you.”

So this is step one: we must recognize evil as being evil and we must commit ourselves to waging war with evil and wiping it out. We must never forget that this is our responsibility as servants of God; we must take an active stand in the face of evil.

But step two takes an opposite approach. The first thing we must do to rid ourselves of evil is reactive; we react to evil by waging war. But a second thing we must do is proactive.

Right after the Jewish people crossed the yam suf and into the desert we are told that they complained about the bitter waters that they found and were unable to drink. So Hashem took a tree and threw it into the water and made the water sweet. The Torah then states, “sham sam lo chok umishpat, then God gave to the Jewish people laws and rulings.”

This passage requires a deep understanding and many different approaches are taken to it.

The most common approach is Rashi’s which states that Hashem took this opportunity to give the laws of Shabbat, the red heifer, and torts to the Jewish people. But Ramban takes an entirely different approach.

Ramban (ad 15:25) teaches that Hashem taught the Jewish people how to behave towards each other. Hashem was upset that the Jewish people complained about the lack of sweet water. It is bad manners to do so. After all He had just led them through the sea and defeated the Egyptians and this is how the Jewish people reacted. It is rude!

So Hashem taught the Jewish people basic interpersonal skills. He taught them how to make a request without complaining (lo derekh telunah), how to get along with each other (le-ehov ish et rei-ehu), how to carry themselves modestly (ve-hatzneah lechet), and how to interact with visiting nations (ve-she-yinhagu shalom im habaim bemachane limkor bahem devarim).

According to Ramban, Hashem taught these ideas to the Jewish people even prior to Sinai. Even before we could get the Torah we needed to have these basic interpersonal skills. This is what the Mishnah means when it states “Derech eretz kadmah le-Torah,” before one can achieve Torah, one must have basic personal skills.

In the context of our Torah portion, we are being taught this law just prior to Amalek’s appearance in order to teach us how to avoid future encounters with Amalek. This is a proactive way of defeating evil; we counteract evil by bringing love and sweetness into the world.

In fact, Ramban also writes that this is the very reason why Hashem throws the tree into the water.

He says it wasn’t even a miracle that the bitter water turned sweet. It was just that Hashem showed Moshe a special tree that had the natural ability to purify water—almost like a natural desalination plant. (Ki ha-etz ha-hu yamtik hamayim be-tivo vehu segulah bo ve-limed otah lemoshe.)

The water was bitter, and the tree came along and naturally sweetened the water.

Well, if it was all natural, then what is the point of the story? The Torah is therefore teaching us that Hashem taught Moshe that there is a natural, non-miraculous quality of sweetness in the world and this sweetness has the ability to purify bitterness.

And this is the second way to conquer Amalek.

We must remember that this ability to remove bitterness exists in the natural world. We can take a sweet substance and add it to bitterness and then drink the water.

This sweet substance that will defeat bitterness is the interpersonal skill set that Hashem teaches the Jewish people. This is the chok umishpat that they learn. It is what is necessary to guard the world against Amalek.

This is a proactive approach to defeating Amalek.

And there is also a third step necessary in dealing with Amalek.

The Torah tells us that when Joshua fought Amalek, Moshe stood up on a mountain. When Moshe raised his hands then the Jewish people were stronger, but when he lowered his hands, the Amalekites got the upper hand. So Aaron and Chur each supported his arms and held them steadfast until the sun came. In Hebrew the text says, “vayehi yadav emunah ad bo hashamesh.”

The word for steadfast is emunah. Emunah is also the word for faith.

One way to understand this verse is that Moshe remained steadfast in his faith until the sun or the dawn –i.e. the redemption–arrived.

When we encounter evil it is so easy to become disheartened and depressed. It is easy to give up on the world; it is easy to lose faith; faith in Hashem, but even more so, faith in the correctness of our mission and vision.

That is why Moshe kept struggling to hold his hands up. He was doubting himself. Am I on the right mission? So he needed his friends and supporters to hold up his hands and strengthen his faith!

This past week I was visited by 25 Christian ministers from around the country who were in town for a scholarly seminar. Naturally, they wanted to visit the National Synagogue, so I of course hosted them.

They asked me: What is the greatest challenge that spiritual leaders encounter? And I think the single greatest challenge is that spiritual leaders lose faith in their own ability to lead and inspire a community.

This is true for rabbis and it is true for all of us. Especially, when we witness pure evil, we are so tempted to give up the fight and become cynical. Our hands waver, and we need our friends to support us. But the way to defeat Amalek is to remain steadfast in our belief in the Torah and in our mission; the way to defeat Amalek is to recognize that even though we have setbacks we can overpower him.

Alas, there is real evil that exists in the world. The war against Amalek is not yet finished. But we do have guidance from Hashem that teaches us how to respond to Amalek.

When we see evil we must reenergize ourselves by taking these three steps which are laid out in this week’s portion: recognize evil and wage battle against it; proactively defeat evil with the natural sweetness that exists in all of us; and do not allow our faith or the faith of our friends or the faith in ourselves and the justness of our mission to waver.

And when we do that then there isn’t a bullet in the world that can block our path.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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