Commentary for Ki Teitzei

16 Aug

This week’s parshah is comprised of an eclectic collection of laws. It frequently bounces around like a discussion in the Gemarah, bouncing from one mostly unrelated topic to the next because of one common element, no matter how relevant it is to the original discussion. Then, at the end of the parshah, we get a pair of commandments that are seemingly unconnected to the previous section in any way at all. After a section in which we are forbidden from using false weights and measures in our business dealings, we are the commanded to remember the attack by Amalek and to blot out the memory of Amalek from history.

The story of Amalek is found in Exodus 17:8-16. The short version of the story is that the nation of Amalek assaulted the Israelites without provocation, striking from the rear of the Israelite column where the vast majority was frail, old, or very young. They intended to cause as many casualties as possible by killing those who were unable to defend themselves. The Israelite army fought back and God helped the Israelites win the battle and drive Amalek off. After the battle, God vows to blot out the name of Amalek from history.

The difference between the section at the end of this week’s parshah (Deut 25:17-19) and the story in Exodus is that in Exodus is that in Exodus, God said that He Himself would be the one to blot out Amalek’s memory, but in this section we are commanded to blot out Amalek’s memory. One of the most important notions in Judaism is the belief that God will keep His promises, such as his covenants with Abraham and the covenant formed at Sinai, so the idea that God would not fulfill this promise and instead leave it up to the Israelites is not a workable theological answer. How, then, can these two statements exist together, both made by God?
Amalek exists in Jewish thought as both the historical nation in the biblical stories and as an idea of evil run rampant. People who will kill and plunder for no other reason than because they can. Biblical commentators report this as the sort of behavior that caused God to bring Divine punishment down upon both the generation of Noah and the people Sodom and Gomorrah. One Rabbinic explanation for the difference between Exodus 17:14 and Deut 25:19 is that when Amalek, be it the actual historical nation or a group inspired by a similar all-consuming greed, becomes a major physical force in the world, God fulfills his promise to take action against them, as he did in Exodus 17, and later in I Samuel when God delivers them in to the hands of King Saul’s army, and in the story of Purim, when God gave Mordechai and Esther the courage and wisdom necessary to eliminate influence of Haman, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag, as well as his kin and supporters, from Persia. It is God’s job to mete out Divine punishment at the place and time of God’s choosing, not ours.

Our job is to create a society that does not tolerate the behaviors that lead people down the path to same thought process as the Amalekites. The commandment for us to blot out the memory of Amalek is found directly after a passage forbidding cheating in business deals by using false weights and measures. If we turn a blind eye to theft in small amounts, it encourages thieves to steal in increasingly larger amounts and to move on to more violent crimes in the course of their thievery. Our role in blotting out the memory of Amalek is to prevent Amalek from ever rising again by ensuring that there is no slippery slope for people to slip down.

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