The parsha begins with war and ends with war. The first war described in
the beginning of the parsha is against an unknown, unspecified and
unidentified enemy. It is so to speak, a generic war, fought for causes
that are not clear and under undetermined circumstances. The second war
described at the end of the parsha is fought against a bitter age-old foe,
Amalek, and is a war of self-preservation.
The first war is not a mandatory one. The Torah prefaces it with the
word “im” – when, if – you go to war. The second war is one of the
mitzvoth of the Torah. It is obligatory on all. It is to save Israel from
the hands of an enemy whose sole intention is to annihilate us. The wars
therefore differ not only in purpose and cause but in intensity as well.
In the war against Amalek we seek not temporary triumph but permanent
achievement. We seek literally the obliteration of Amalek.
It is the fulfillment of the rabbinic dictum of the Talmud that “if one
comes to kill you then rise earlier and kill him.” In our current world of
relative morality and feel-good wishful thinking pacifism, this mitzvah
about the destruction of Amalek makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps if we only
reasoned with Amalek, appeased him somehow with concessions, he would calm
down and be nice to us.
That policy may be valid in the first war described in the parsha. In
fact, the Torah bids us always to try peace before embarking on war. But
in the war against Amalek no such attitude or policy is even mentioned. It
has always been either Amalek or us and if you don’t mind, the Jewish
people prefer surviving over favorable obituaries in the world’s press.
There is another major difference between the wars that the Torah points
out to us in the parsha. In the first war, there is the danger of
fraternization with the women of the enemy. The Torah makes temporary
concessions to this situation though it clearly warns against the long
term results of such a relationship. But in the war against Amalek such a
possibility or situation is not even mentioned. The war against Amalek is
so clearly a battle for survival that such a relationship becomes remote
if not even impossible. Amalek asks for no quarter for it extends to us no
It is the ultimate war of attrition, of determining who will finally be
left standing at the conclusion of the struggle. Hence it almost precludes
any type of social intercourse between the antagonists. Amalek has taken
on many different names and guises in our millennia long struggle against
him. He is never vanquished permanently but arises again in a different
form and location. We hear his bellicose predictions and boasts about our
destruction – God forbid – almost daily. We should not be lulled into the
belief that his warnings are insincere.
Amalek has always had the one goal of destroying us. He has always met
with partial success though always falling in final defeat after time. Let
us realize the struggle that we are engaged in against Amalek is a real
and desperate one. And let us pray that the God of Israel together with
the people of Israel will foil Amalek’s dastardly plans once more.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com