We must always be on guard against the Amelek inside

Ki Tetze

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Isaiah 54:1-10

Even if we were able to know with any degree of certainty which peoples belong to the nation of Amalek, in our present exile we are forbidden to actually carry out the mitzvah of eradicating this hopelessly evil nation. Still, there remains a mitzvah incumbent upon us to "Remember what Amalek did to us" (Deuteronomy 25:17).

After all the miracles G-d performed for the Jewish people in Egypt and at the Red Sea, Amalek displayed the unmitigated temerity to attempt to undo with one monstrous attack all the effects of the miracles and wonders that had the other nations of the world trembling before G-d and His people, Israel.

Our Sages (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tetze 9) compared Amalek's wicked action to that of a madman who, seeing a boiling cauldron that all others were afraid to touch, nonetheless dove into it. Even though he himself came out badly scalded, he managed to cool the water psychologically to a degree where others would then take the plunge. All of the evidence of G-d's special protection for the Jewish people did not prevent Amalek from attacking them, thereby making them fair game for the other nations. The Zohar, in Parashat Beshalach, describes Amalek as a force in the world that is allied with evil and death against G-dliness and truth.

So why must we always remember what Amalek did? Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory in his book "Darash Moshe" suggests that today the purpose of this mitzvah is for us to always bear in mind the possibility of any human being to become as evil as Amalek, to deny the undeniable, that of G-d's role in the world. So the message to the individual is regarding his own evil inclination.

In his commentary Ohev Yisroel, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, of blessed memory, the Apter Rav and the ancestor of the 20th-century theologian, puts it beautifully: "It is not only the nation of Israel that is commanded regarding the destruction of Amalek. It is every single individual who must destroy that portion of evil hidden within all of our hearts and totally uproot it so that there is not the slightest remnant left. Since we believe that every human being is a miniature universe unto himself, there is in everyone that force of Amalek, that essence of evil, which works at all times to cause a person to sin. This is why it is necessary to remember always the power of Amalek.

Just as Amalek fell so low, we must fear that any one of us can fall equally low. Just as Amalek ignored all of the wonders and signs of G-d's power and might, so might we fall into that trap. We must always distrust our ability to persist in the good practices we have already established for ourselves. It is our duty to introspect and recognize that little Amalek lurking within all of us attempting to challenge our belief in G-d and His holy Torah.

We are now approaching the Days of Awe with their call for soul-searching and coming closer to our Creator. It is instructive to note that after all of the fervent prayer and confession on Yom Kippur, at the end of the day we will still be required, in the closing Neilah service, to beg G-d to help us to "withdraw our hands from oppression."

Are we really likely, after all that repenting, to leave the synagogue and behave with cruelty to others? We see that we are never completely immune from committing even grave sins. We are all made of the same flesh and blood as the wicked of all generations. When the sages warned us (Avot 2:5), "Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death," they had in mind each and every one of us. They knew that without exception anyone could, G-d forbid, stumble in any of the mitzvot. We must never allow smugness or self-confidence to get in the way of being on guard against the evil within.

Shabbat shalom.

The writer is dean of Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.