Rabbi David Walk
It's sort of cool when the Torah reading of Titzave coincides with the special reading of Zachor, which reminds us the obligation to obliterate the nation of Amalek. That's because there's a famous Midrash at the beginning of Titzave which reminds us of the symbolism of making extremely pure olive oil for use in the holy Temple. Just like oil separates itself from water and rises to the top, so, too, the Jewish people should strive to remain separate from the other nations and endeavor to always rise to the highest levels of ethics and morality. We can take this metaphor one step further. Visualize a multitude of liquids mixed together. There is pure oil will rises to the top, and there is sludge which descends to the bottom. Analogous to us considering ourselves the purity at the top, we should think of Amalek as the slime sliding to the bottom. Of course this brings us to the annual question: What is there about Amalek which identifies it as dregs of humanity?
There are the obvious attributes. They are cruel and compassion-less. The verse (Deuteronomy 25:18) attests to the fact that they not only attacked without warning but also fell upon the stragglers and the weak at the back of the nation who couldn't defend themselves. There is also the famous pun based upon the word korcha. The literal meaning seems to be that they happened upon us, but the Midrash (quoted by Rashi) contends that it comes from the Hebrew for cold. They cooled us off at a time when no one dared attacked because we showed such Divine power in Egypt. This last idea seems to correspond to the irrationality of much anti-semitism. Even when Germany was clearly losing World War II, the Nazi fanatics diverted crucial war assets to kill Jews. The true Amalekite doesn't care what happens to him as long as Jews are hurt in the effort.
This mitzva, I believe requires more elucidation. There are two problems to overcome if this precept is just to destroy an ethnic group called Amalek. First of all, the Torah specifies (Exodus 17:16) that this war is for all times. There is no nationality listed anywhere today which called Amalek. And even if that gene pool were living under an alias, there's still a problem. Our Sages assert that the Assyrian policy of population transfer mixed all the ancient ethnicities beyond recognition. So, who are they? And, there's another problem. The verse in Deuteronomy states: when the Lord your God grants you respite from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord, your God, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, then you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens (25:19). Wait a minute. If we have peace from all our enemies around, doesn't that mean that there is no Amalek bothering us either? Therefore we must come to the conclusion that this war is not against a nation. It is a war against an ideology.
But what is this ideology? Obviously we are talking about a theoretical orientation which is cruel and callous. But that's not specific enough, because a lot of groups throughout history could be described that way. What is unique about the Amalek point of view? Before I nominate my candidate for this distinction, allow me this critical caveat. The theory of Amalek is probably a moving target. Each generation must identify its Amalek. This idea may even be alluded to in this verse from Exodus which states that war against Amalek is from generation to generation. Each generation has its own Amalek and its own war.
Rav Yehuda Amital OB"M, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon, pointed out that we have looked in the wrong place to fine the linguistic hint to the unique nature of Amalek. While we were looking at the word korcha, he noticed the word machar, tomorrow. When Amalek attacked at the end of parshat Beshalach, Moshe told Joshua that tomorrow he would stand on the mountain above the fray. We could have asked why the wait, but it didn't seem so obvious a problem. However, Rav Amital put that quote together with the famous quote from Megilat Esther: let the king and Haman come to the banquet that I will make for them, and tomorrow I will do the king's bidding (Esther 5:8). And Haman, that generation's manifestation of Amalek, repeats the instruction to come tomorrow to his wife as well. What is the significance of 'tomorrow-ness'? I quote from Rav Amital: The Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, 1520-1609) explains that the word "tomorrow" expresses existential, moral duality: today we do that which is appropriate today, and tomorrow we do what is appropriate tomorrow. This expresses constant flux, a lack of fixed priorities and values: that which is good today will not necessarily be good tomorrow; everything changes depending on the circumstances. Esther understood that she faced an Amalekite worldview, and therefore she used the word "tomorrow."
Amalek represents the kind of moral relativism which we reject. Our religion espouses an eternal set of ethics,which is not situational but objective. Rav Amital avers that Amalek 'denies the existence of any absolute values at all. It posits that there is no need to aspire to progress; in fact, there is no need to aspire towards anything. There is no ideology, everything is permissible.'
We not only reject this point of view, we envision a constant battle against it. It alone can dismantle our moral edifice. The greatest danger of this vacillating world view is that we can occasionally see it within ourselves. We demand the need for eternal vigilance against Amalek, lest we find him lurking in the mirror.