By Rav David Silverstein
Parshat Zachor introduces us to a very unique mitzvah, both in its content and application. On the one hand, the requirement to eradicate the memory of Amalek is so extreme that we are obligated to kill both any human or even animal connected to the Amalekite nation. Moreover, while wars of complete destruction were not foreign to the world view of the ancient near east, Rav Elchanan Samet notes that “in general, the mitzva of cherem [destruction] was aimed at a certain city, and therefore its period of validity was restricted: once the city was exterminated, the war of cherem against it was over.” The commandment to destroy Amalek, by contrast, is different. “Since Amalek is a nomadic nation, their destruction is not like the destruction of a city: it is not a one-time act, but rather an ongoing battle from generation to generation.”
The Torah’s insistence upon complete destruction of the Amalekite nation raises questions about the nature of the Amalekite sin that prompted the harsh biblical command. Rav Hirsch, for example, argues that “Amalek, which only finds its strength in the might of its sword. …. stepped out to oppose by the power of the sword the first entry into the history of mankind of the People representing the victory of the power of the word.” For Rav Hirsch, the war against Amalek is a battle against a worldview premised upon brute force and power. As long as that ideology exists in the world, the battle to eradicate that vision is still in play.
Chasidic as well as mystically inclined Jewish thinkers frame the challenge posed by the existence of Amalek differently. Noting the numerological equivalent between the words Amalek and Safek (doubt), these scholars see Amalek as a nation representing irrational forms of skepticism. Looking to the biblical text for support, Chassidic rabbis note that the war of Amalek against the Jewish nation takes place immediately after the Israelites leave Egypt. The exodus from Egypt represented an undeniable moment of divine intervention into the lives of the Jewish people. The Torah even testifies that after crossing the sea, a “fear” [of God] befell the nations of the world. Despite the obvious demonstration of God’s existence and power after splitting the sea, Amalek decided to attack the Israelites with the goal of challenging a truth claim that was obvious to all. Doubting the very premise of God’s involvement in human history and possibly His very existence, the Amalekite goal was to cast doubt upon what was perceived to be an undeniable moment of divine revelation (see. Shem Mishemuel zachor, תרע”ט).
Expanding on the theme of doubt in defining Amalek’s unique halachic status, Rav Yitzchak Hutner calls attention to the Torah’s directive that the obligation to destroy Amalek be for every generation (דר דר). According to Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak Purim, page 65) there are two dimensions to the mitzvah of destroying Amalek. The first is the formal requirement for the physical destruction of Amalek. The second is a broader obligation to pass on the tradition of the Torah from one generation to the next (דר דר). Questioning assumed sacred cannons, the “Amalekite” entices younger generations of committed Jews by tempting them to challenge the belief paradigms of their parents. We erase the memory of Amalek by overcoming this form of skepticism and affirming our faith in tradition.
This default orientation of radical skepticism proposed by the Amalekites is problematic on philosophical grounds as well. Dr. David Shatz, highlights some of the inconsistencies of the extreme skeptic by quoting the great philosopher David Hume, who said that “in my study… I come to appreciate that I lack adequate grounds for all sorts of things I take for granted in my life—the regularity of nature, the reality of the physical world; yet when I exist, those intellectual infirmities have not the slightest influence on my belief system.” According to Hume, “a philosophical skeptic, someone who casts doubts on our grounds for these and other common beliefs, cannot live his skepticism.” In other words, even the Amalekite worldview is premised upon basic assumptions and beliefs. There is no better way to reduce the argument of the extreme skeptic to the absurd than by questioning the very basic assumptions that underlie his skepticism.
Rav Kook addresses another problem with the skeptical model advocated by Amalek. Questioning and probing information is a certainly a healthy and sophisticated way to achieve a more complex and nuanced understanding of the data being presented. In some instances, the questioner may be so bothered by a given question that he may end up rejecting one model of truth and opting for an alternative model that doesn’t fall prey to the same challenges. However, there is another model of questioning where the questions are ends and not means. In this model the questioner is only interested in challenging base assumptions without advocating any alternative vision or philosophy. Applying Rav Kook’s construct, one could argue that this second model is the one that motivated the Amalekite attack. Lacking any military reason for waging battle again the Israelites, the Amalekites attacked the Jewish people in order to challenge the sacred premise of God’s divine providence.
Since hearing Parshat Zachor constitutes the fulfillment of the biblical requirement to remember the battle against Amalek, the annual reading provides an opportunity to reflect upon the lessons of this epic battle and apply the necessary applications to our daily lives. More specifically, Parshat Zachor allows us to reflect upon complex questions such as the role of certainty in our faith commitments, the place for doubt in our religious lives, and the complex tension of affirming a sophisticated approach to commitment in a cultural climate of extreme skepticism.