• Harav Yaakov Medan


This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.



By Rav Yaakov Medan


A. "As if to prevail over God"

The most obvious question presented to us by the obligation to wipe out Amalek is the moral one. Why are we required to erase the entire Amalekite nation, regardless of their behavior; why does God Himself also "declare war" on them?

This commandment would seem to contain two elements that are altogether "immoral" in human notions of morality:

i. The command of complete eradication - young and old, women and children. Although these details are not mentioned specifically in the Torah, we interpret the command thus on the basis of the instruction issued by the prophet Shemuel: "Now go and smite Amalek and destroy all that is theirs; you shall have no mercy on them, you shall put to death men and women, CHILDREN AND INFANTS, CATTLE AND SHEEP, CAMELS AND DONKEYS" (Shemuel I 15:3).

ii. The unlimited time-frame for this revenge: "God is at war with Amalek from generation to generation" (Shemot 17:16), and "When the Lord your God gives you rest..." (Devarim 25:19). Accordingly, Shemuel declares in God's name, "I have remembered what Amalek did to Israel, lying in wait for them on the way when they came out of Egypt" (Shemuel I 15:2) - some four hundred and thirty years after Amalek's sin.

Chazal express these moral questions in the words of Shaul, who is commanded to wage this war:

"'Shaul came to the city of Amalek, and laid wait in the valley': R. Bena'a taught: He began to question the law of the 'egla arufa.' He said to God: 'Master of the Universe, that person kills - and this [calf] must have its neck broken to atone' [the sense here is ambiguous; the claim may be expressed either as a statement or as a question]. The Rabbis taught: He began to question God's command: 'Master of the Universe, thus Shemuel said to me: 'Go and smite Amalek, and destroy them completely....' A person may sin, but how can an animal be guilty?' A heavenly voice declared: 'Do not be overly righteous - more than your Creator." (Midrash Kohelet Zuta, parasha 7)

In any event, the Midrash provides an indirect response to Shaul's claims:

"Reish Lakish said: Anyone who becomes merciful towards the cruel, ends up being cruel towards the merciful. From where do we learn this? From Shaul, as it is written, "He smote Nov, the city of the priests...." First [in Sefer Shemuel, when Shaul is commanded to completely wipe out Amalek], we read, "'Shaul and the nation had pity...,'and ultimately - concerning Nov, the city of the kohanim - he did not have pity on the merciful ones."

The Midrash makes effective use of the stylistic similarity between Shemuel's command to annihilate Amalek - a command that Shaul failed to fulfill properly - and the annihilation of the city of Nov, which did take place:

"Now go and SMITE Amalek and destroy utterly all that they have; you shall not have mercy on them, you shall put to death MEN AND WOMEN, CHILDREN AND INFANTS, CATTLE AND SHEEP, CAMELS AND DONKEYS" (Shemuel I 15:3), compared with

"He SMOTE the city of Nov by the sword, MEN AND WOMEN, CHILDREN AND INFANTS, CATTLE, DONKEY'S AND SHEEP, by the sword" (Shemuel I 22:19)

The Midrash provides no explanation of how God's response actually answers the true claim that Shaul presents, but it does support the Divine response: "'Do not be too righteous' - do not [try to] be more righteous than your Creator." Indeed, Shaul is not more righteous than God, for he ends up destroying Nov, the city of the kohanim. But still, the Midrash contains nothing that "justifies" the command to annihilate Amalek.

We shall return to this midrash. First, it should be noted that Chazal and the early midrashim give almost no direct attention to these questions. Sages of later generations addressed them at greater length, and we find a certain indirect treatment of them by the earlier Sages. In any event, the question that almost all the commentators ask is, in what way was Amalek's sin more terrible than that of all the other nations that waged war against Am Yisrael, or that of all the nations that subjugated them with such great cruelty?

The Ramban provides two different - and even contradictory - answers to this question. Most of the other commentators adopt his approach and offer variations of the same two explanations:

"The reason for the punishment meted out to Amalek, more than any other nation, is because all the nations heard [about the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea] and were afraid; Peleshet, Edom and Moav, as well as the inhabitants of Canaan, melted with fear of God and His glorious strength - and then Amalek came from afar as though to prevail over God. Therefore it is said concerning him, 'and did not fear God.'

And also - because he was a great-grandson of Eisav, our relative, who came over to become involved in a fight in which he had no part." (Ramban, Shemot 17:16)

The Ramban's first explanation portrays Amalek as the clear enemy of faith in God. Amalek bears the flag of heresy. At a time when all the nations recognized God's kingship because of what happened at the Red Sea, Amalek found it necessary to demonstrate his ability to wage war against God's nation. In light of this, the fact that the war took place close to Mount Chorev, where God's kingship was supposed to be entirely revealed to all people in the world, becomes especially significant. The Revelation had already begun at Chorev, where water poured forth from the rock, and then Amalek arrived to do battle with Israel. Only after the victory over Amalek did the rest of the Revelation at Sinai take place. The juxtaposition of the war to the Revelation at Sinai, when God was revealed to His nation - and was meant to be revealed to the entire world - is explained well by the Ramban.

Many respected commentaries adopted this approach of the Ramban, in different ways. We shall make mention here of the Ba'alei ha-Tosfot, who explain that Amalek waged war against Israel by means of enchantment and astrology - i.e., by unnatural and supernatural means. This insight hints to us that the reasons for the war were likewise not natural - and this would seem to echo Ramban's view of a battle over the roots of faith in God.

Rabbi Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin, in his book "Resisei Laila," adopts a different approach. Amalek, to his view, represents principally the power of false imagination that reigns in the world, and the apparent perfection of its strength and logic. Therefore, the essence of the war against him lies in the spiritual realm. This approach, like that of Ramban, understands the crux of the war waged by Amalek as being directed against faith in God and His service - and therefore the war against him is a commandment. Many chassidic works follow this view of R. Tzadok, especially Rav Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Gur - the "Sefat Emet."

The Ramban's second explanation does not address a direct confrontation that takes place between Amalek and God; rather, it refers to the hatred of Israel inculcated in him by his ancestor - Eisav - which causes him to come from afar, all the way to Refidim, to fight against Israel. There is considerable support among the commentators for this explanation, too, and is has become widely accepted, especially following the Holocaust. Among contemporary thinkers, Rav Soloveitchik was its staunchest supporter, claiming that those who sow hatred of Israel in the world are the disciples and ideological descendants of Amalek.

The central difficulty presented by both of the Ramban's explanations concerns the historical reality of the period of the Exodus. Would a desert tribe, presumably primitive and absorbed with the concerns of its physical existence, be so self-sacrificing for the sake of waging war over the subject of monotheistic faith? Would a desert tribe preserve its ancestral hatred for Am Yisrael over the course of hundreds of years, despite the fact that in the intervening period - during which Am Yisrael was enslaved in Egypt - there was no conflict between them and Amalek? Would Amalek really take the trouble to come from so far away, motivated solely by anti-Semitism and a desire for revenge?

B. "When you were tired and weak" - why?

The Ramban, whose two explanations are recorded above, explains the episode of Amalek principally on the basis of the narrative in Sefer Shemot; indeed, the quotation above is from his commentary there. But many other commentators (including Abarbanel), in addressing the story of Amalek, take as their starting point the verses in Sefer Devarim. They explain that Amalek's sin lay in the lack of humanity displayed in the confrontation with Am Yisrael, the assumption being that this lack of humanity characterizes Amalek's path in general. This characteristic finds expression not only in the sudden and inexplicable attack on Israel, but - more importantly - in the form of warfare: as a warrior against the weak.

"...when he attacked the weak ones, at the rear, when you were tired and weary" (Devarim 25:18).

Two points here require explanation:

1. Why were Benei Yisrael "weak ones" in this war, while in other wars - such as that against Sichon and Og - they displayed great valor? We may explain this phenomenon in terms of the difference that would naturally have been apparent between the generation that left Egypt - accustomed from birth to fear and subjugation - and the next generation, which had grown up free, in the desert. It was the elder generation that fought against Amalek, while the younger generation - which had no part in the sin of the spies - fought against Sichon and Og, Kings of the Emori. However, Yehoshua's victory over Amalek at the end of the war refutes this distinction - unless we assume that the miracle of the victory was completely disconnected from reality. Still, the tiredness, the weakness, and the weariness would seem to require some explanation.

2. Why is Amalek's cruelty towards the weak mentioned only in Sefer Devarim, not in Sefer Shemot? And why, despite this, does the cry for revenge ring out from Sefer Shemot as well?

We shall attempt, in this section, to answer the first question.

Benei Yisrael passed through three stations on their journey from the Red Sea to Mount Sinai: Mara, the Wilderness of Sin, and Refidim. At Mara they were given a "statute and a judgment," and God presented them with a test, whose nature is not presented explicitly in the Torah:

"There He gave them a statute and a judgment, and there He tested them" (Shemot 15:25).

From the context it would seem that the "statute" concerns the fixed ration of water that Moshe established for every Israelite to draw from the well. The purpose of this was so that the water would suffice for everyone, such that there could not arise a situation in which, heaven forbid, those who were stronger and quicker would obtain more water for themselves and their families, leaving the weak languishing in their thirst. This was an educational-social lesson, no less than an existential-physical one.

In the Wilderness of Sin, Benei Yisrael underwent a similar process, which is described more explicitly in the text. Here, too, the food given to them is connected to a test:

"God said to Moshe: Behold, I shall rain down food for you from the heavens; the nation shall go out and gather a daily ration each day, in order that I may test them [as to] whether they will walk in My teaching or not." (Shemot 16:4)

The commentaries maintain that the test involved here was Shabbat, concerning which the nation was commanded. But the test is mentioned several verses prior to any mention of Shabbat. It would seem, therefore, that the command and its related test pertain to the portion of food rationed to each person and each family, as we are told further on:

"This is the thing which God commanded: Let each man gather of it according to his capacity - an 'omer' per head, by the number of souls; each person shall take for those who are in his tent. And Benei Yisrael did so, and gathered - those who were more, and those who were less. They measured by the 'omer, so that those who were more did not collect too much and those who were few did not collect too little; each person gathered in accordance with his capacity." (ibid. 16-18)

According to what we have said above, the fact that "those who were more did not collect too much" was not a miracle - as Rashi and most of the other commentators assert, but rather a description of how the nation stood up to the test and fulfilled the Divine command. On Friday the nation was permitted to gather a double portion without any explanation being offered; only after they did so are they given the commandment of Shabbat.

The limitation of individual rations to "an 'omer per person' leads to what the Torah ultimately defines as oppression and hunger:

"He oppressed you and made you hunger, and fed you the manna which you had not known, nor had your forefathers known it, in order for you to know that it is not by bread alone that man lives..." (Devarim 8:3).

Here we come to the spiritual-educational aspect of the test: the need to consolidate the anonymous rag-tag crowd that had emerged from bondage into a nation and society that would bear and represent to all the world "the way of God, to perform righteousness and justice" (Bereishit 18:19). A central factor in the consolidation of a nation, currently in the middle of a long journey and about to embark on a difficult war of conquest, is the feeling of mutual responsibility. A sense of equality and responsibility for the lives and well-being of every individual in the nation is important in many spheres of life, but it is of critical importance on the way to receive the Torah, especially among soldiers who will go out together to fight a long, hard war.


The impression we get from the text is that at Mara, Benei Yisrael stood up to the test, and in the Wilderness of Sin they also behaved properly - with the exception of a few individuals. But the entire socio-educational endeavor that had been carefully built up at Mara and in the Wilderness of Sin collapsed at Refidim, where there was no water for the congregation:

"All of the congregation of Israel traveled from the Wilderness of Sin on their way, by word of God, and they encamped at Refidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. So the people quarreled with Moshe, and they said: Give us water, that we may drink! Moshe said to them: Why are you quarreling with me; why are you trying to test God? But the nation was thirsty for water, and they complained to Moshe, and said: Why have you brought us up from Egypt to put us to death - we and our children and our cattle - with thirst? So Moshe cried out to God and said: What shall I do for this nation; just a little more and they will stone me! God said to Moshe: Go before the nation and take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I shall stand before you there, at the rock at Chorev, and you shall strike the rock, and water will emerge, that the people may drink. So Moshe did so, before the eyes of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place "Masa u-Meriva," because of the quarrel (riv) of Benei Yisrael and their testing (nasotam) of God, saying, Is God in our midst or not?" (Shemot 17:1-7)

The collapse of the social structure of Benei Yisrael took place in three areas:

a. The 'masa' (testing of God): The Torah suggests that their sin was the question, "Is God in our midst or not?" but this question is not explained in the body of the story. It may be related to their complaint, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us - ourselves, our children and our cattle - with thirst?" Their words expressed further heresy against faith that God had brought them out of Egypt, and that He had not done so in order to kill them in the desert, but rather in order ultimately to provide good for them.

b. The 'meriva' (quarrel): Their quarrel with Moshe and their explicit demand, "Give us water, that we may drink" - a quarrel that reached a level where there was reason to fear that Moshe would be stoned.

c. The sin hinted at in the Torah's unusual expression in presenting the complaint, "To kill us - ourselves, our children and our livestock - with thirst" (literally, "to kill me and my children and my livestock..."). The focus of everyone on himself, his own children, and his own livestock hints that the quarrel was a personal matter for each quarreler; the common complaint was simply an "ad hoc" expansion of it against Moshe. Each person demanded his own personal ration of water for himself, his family and his animals, with no concern for the welfare of the nation as a whole. In Refidim, Benei Yisrael were not given a "statute and a judgment" as they were in Mara, and instead of the expression "there He tested them," pertaining to Mara, we find in Refidim, "for their testing of God."

In Refidim, it seems, there was no possibility of there being any water, and so God sends Moshe, together with the elders of Israel, to the rock at Chorev, a significant distance from Refidim. It is at this stage that the crisis explodes. Moshe leaves the nation and goes to the rock at Chorev, the elders accompany him, and - as we deduce from the continuation of the text - Yehoshua, too, went along. Since the nation lacked the patience and endurance necessary to walk to Chorev, the Revelation at the rock was witnessed only by Moshe and the elders - not the whole nation. The water flowed from Chorev, apparently via the "stream that came down from the mountain," all the way to the Israelite camp in Refidim - at least a whole day's walk. By the time the water reached the camp it was no longer as clean and clear as it was when it emerged from the rock; in addition, it reached the camp with no accompanying Divine revelation or any other spiritual content. The entire leadership was absent at the moment when the angry, thirsty people saw the water reaching the camp. Even before Moshe had left, each person was concerned only for his own children and his own livestock. The combination of water without any spiritual content, a nation without any leadership, and a thirst with no concern for others - all of these, apparently, formed a terrible mixture that led to a quarrel over water and a war of everyone against everyone else.

And then Amalek came...

C. Back to the house of slavery

Amalek saw before them a nation that was thirsty and tired, with no internal cohesion and with no leadership - in other words, lacking the most basic conditions to defend itself and fight back. All this, in addition to the fact that this nation was a collection of recently-freed slaves, plus they had no experience in warfare. Amalek attacked the rearguard of Benei Yisrael, and this was their sin. The text does not explain why they did this, but the point of this act may be deduced from what happened many hundreds of years later, at Tziklag:

"It was, when David and his men came to Tziklag on the third day, that Amelek had raided the South, and Tziklag, and they had smitten Tziklag and burned it with fire. They had taken the women who were there captive, from young to old, putting none to death; they carried them away and went on their way. So when David and his men came to the city, behold, it was burned with fire, and their wives and sons and daughters had been taken captives." (Shemuel I 30:1-3)

In Tziklag, Amalek followed the example of their forefathers and attacked the weak. They were not prepared to confront David and his warriors face to face; rather, they exploited the opportunity offered when David went northward with his men, with the army of Akhish, King of Gat. It never occurred to them that David and his company would be banished by the princes of the Pelishtim, and would return quickly to their city of Tziklag. They went out to wage war only against a non-combatant population, against women and children, against "the weak at the rear."

Because the two stories are so similar, perhaps we may deduce an additional level of understanding of what happened in Refidim from the story of Tziklag. In the story of Tziklag, the text emphasizes that Amalek did not put anyone to death (Shemuel I 30:2); all those who were present in the city were taken captive. It seems, then, that the captives were taken along as part of the great booty that was captured in the raid, the intention being to sell them on the slave markets for a good profit. They passed, with their captives, over Wadi Besor, from north-east to south-west; we may perhaps assume that they were headed for the great slave market in Egypt. We may further assume that their ancestors had the same aim in mind when they attacked the rear of those who had left Egypt at Refidim, while Moshe, Yehoshua, and the elders of Israel were absent from the camp. Their aim, aside from monetary treasure, may well have been to return the people to Egypt and sell them again into slavery.

This assumption sheds light on a central issue related to the story of Refidim. The juxtaposition of the narratives concerning the people's complaint at Refidim and the arrival of Amalek at the camp is explained by Chazal in the Midrash, as we would expect, in terms of sin and punishment. But the Midrash speaks of a lesson of a very general nature - the removal of God's special providence from the nation that doubted His presence. According to what we have said above, the lesson was clear and unequivocal: the nation quarreled with Moshe, with the words, "Why then have you brought us out of Egypt." This was the strongest language used thus far in any of their complaints. The lesson and punishment came in the form of Amalek, who intended to return them to the slavery of Egypt, thereby reminding the complainers that Egypt was a place not only of plentiful water, but also of cruel taskmasters who struck their backs with sticks, as well as the other pleasures of slavery.

D. Downfall and victory

Let us return to the story of the weaklings. Amalek's second unpardonable crime was their custom - finding expression both in the war against Israel in Refidim and again, hundreds of years later, in Tziklag - of attacking the weak and helpless. Amalek did not present themselves as a fighting force taking on the organized Israelite army; they were not prepared to assume the price of defeat in war. The frontlines that they selected were not on the battlefield, but rather the place of the weak and helpless, the tired and weary.

Here the question arises: this fact, emphasized so clearly in the description of the war in Sefer Devarim, appears nowhere in the story of the war as recounted in Sefer Shemot. Moreover, even the description of the course of the battle, and its results, seems entirely different in the two sources. Sefer Devarim describes acute Israelite distress. The impression that arises from reading the parasha is that Israel was attacked with no response offered; the cry of future revenge is the only response, the only counter-attack. In Sefer Shemot, the tone of the description of the battle is optimistic; there are no great difficulties. Moshe raises his arms, thereby causing Israel to prevail, and when the sun sets, Yehoshua defeats Amalek. The reader reviews the two accounts and wonders whether they are describing the same battle.

Perhaps the discrepancy can be explained by the fact that the battle lasted two days. On the day when Amalek came to Refidim, Moshe sent Yehoshua to recruit men to fight, while he himself expected Divine aid only "tomorrow":

"Moshe said to Yehoshua: Choose men for us, and go out to fight against Amalek. TOMORROW I shall stand at the top of the hill, with God's staff in my hand... and his hands were steady until the setting of the sun." (Shemot 17:9-12)

"His hands were steady until the setting of the sun," then, refers to the second day of the battle - which was the day when Moshe lifted his hands and Israel prevailed. Sefer Shemot describes only the second day - the day that witnessed the counter-attack by Yehoshua and his army, the day that had no "weak ones," only victory. Sefer Devarim, on the other hand, describes the first day of the battle: Am Yisrael with no army, with no leader, with no heroes, at the mercy of Amalek's organized brigades.

The reason for the enormous difference between the first day and the second involves a number of factors:

1. Yehoshua's leadership. Yehoshua, as stated, was with Moshe at Mount Chorev at the time of the Divine revelation over the water. His sprint back to the distant camp in Refidim and the organization of an army from amongst the camp lasted an entire day; during that day Amalek managed to make headway into the camp. Yehoshua's firm leadership stands in stark contrast, throughout the story, to the faltering leadership of Shaul in his war against Amalek, summed up in his own words: "For I feared the people, and I listened to them" (Shemuel I 15:24).

2. Aside from Yehoshua's leadership, what made the second day different from the first was the selection of the fighting men. This was no longer an ad hoc militia, in which each man cared only for his own children and his own livestock; rather, Moshe commanded Yehoshua: "Choose men for us, and go out to fight against Amalek" (Shemot 17:9).

The Torah does not go on to describe which men Yehoshua was instructed to select, but perhaps we may deduce this from what does appear in the text.

Aside from Yehoshua's battle against Amalek, the only other battle in which we read of a selection of men is Gidon's battle against Midyan, Amalek, and the Benei Kedem, when the latter gathered in the valley of Yizre'el. Gidon is commanded to take the three hundred men who did not kneel to drink, but rather brought water up to their faces with their hands as his soldiers. Aside from the lapse in security that resulted from the men kneeling to drink - which may have been reason enough to invalidate them from serving in Gidon's army, and aside from the suspicion of idolatry that arose from the sight of those who went down on their knees, these people also displayed an unrestrained scrum for the water, and it was this that led them to cast their weapons to the ground. This was highly reminiscent of the scrum over water at Refidim, just before Amalek launched their attack. The three hundred soldiers of Gidon's army knew how to control themselves, to drink water in limited quantities, lapping at it from their hands as a dog laps water - thereby leaving place at the water for the others waiting eagerly for a drink. It is possible that Yehoshua chose similar men for his battle; with soldiers such as these Yehoshua could vanquish Amalek.

3. The third difference between the first day of the battle against Amalek and the second was Moshe's presence at the top of the hill, with God's staff in his hand. In what way is this battle different from all the other wars that Israel fought in the desert; why was there a need for this special action on Moshe's part?

Perhaps the special conditions of this battle at Refidim can be understood better in light of its parallel - the battle at Ai:

"God said to Yehoshua: Stretch out the spear that is in your hand towards Ai, for I shall give it into your hand. So Yehoshua stretched out the spear in his hand towards the city... and Yehoshua did not retract his hand that was outstretched with the spear until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai." (Yehoshua 8:18-26)

In the battle of Ai, too, the leader was commanded not to fight himself, but rather to stretch out his arm above the fighters. The similarity between the battle of Ai and the battle against Amalek in Refidim is the setback on the first day, because of the sin. Owing to the severity of the setback, explicit Divine intervention was required on the second day in order to ensure victory. This intervention finds expression in the special act of the leader, as we shall discuss further below.

To clarify this point, let us examine the following midrash of Chazal on Megillat Esther:

"'And tomorrow I shall do as the king has said' - for what reason did Ester say this? Because all of the seed of Amalek fall 'on the morrow.' Thus [Moshe] says, "Tomorrow I shall stand at the top of the mountain.""

It seems that the "morrow," which tradition establishes as the day of Amalek's defeat, is related to the difficulty of the war against them, and the natural victory which is expected on the first day of battle. It is only by virtue of the initial blow that is delivered to Israel that they lift their eyes heavenward, thereby meriting God's involvement in His special ways, and hence the victory "on the morrow." This was the pattern established in Refidim, where the nation suffered a severe military blow until Moshe came and lifted his hands heavenward, causing Benei Yisrael to raise their gaze towards their Father in heaven. The same pattern repeated itself in the days of Esther and Mordekhai, when at first the hand of Haman prevailed, until the Jews launched into prayer and fasting. Until the three-day fast was over, Esther did not dare stand up to Haman. "On that night," at the end of the day when she hosted the first party for Achashverosh and Haman, and at the end of the three-day fast, God's intervention in the course of events is revealed for the first time, in the astounding chain of coincidences that bring about the situation in which Haman leads the horse upon which Mordekhai is seated. The next day, Esther embarks on a head-on confrontation with this descendant of Amalek, now armed with clear proof that God is on her side.

The battle for Ai was not a war against Amalek, but in one aspect it was similar: this battle, too, was characterized by a setback on the first day, followed by prayer and crying to God with a repairing of the sin following the fall, and then another day of battle with a promise of Divine aid - as expressed in Yehoshua's spear stretched heavenward, symbolizing for the nation God's involvement in the battle.

The parallel between Yehoshua's battle at Ai and the battle against Amalek in Refidim, with its common image of the leader stretching his arm heavenward until the battle is over, teaches us what the lifting of Moshe's hands at the top of the mountain was all about. The conventional understanding of this image, based on the Mishna in Massekhet Rosh Ha-shana, is that Moshe lifted his hands in prayer to God, and Benei Yisrael, following his example, then offered prayers. But the parallel to the image of Yehoshua in the battle of Ai would imply that Moshe lifted HIS HAND (not "hands"), grasping the staff of God, just as he lifted his hand and the staff when he waged war against Egypt in the form of the plagues and the splitting of the sea, and just as Yehoshua stretched out his spear. His hand with the staff therefore symbolized, once again, the "strong hand and outstretched arm" of his Sender - of God. Accordingly, we must interpret the Mishna to mean that Benei Yisrael raised their eyes and saw God's strong arm - and then they subjugated their hearts to Him.

We may therefore summarize the third difference between the two days of battle against Amalek as follows: it was only on the second day that God was engaged in the battle. Without His contribution to the Israelite cause, Amalek would have prevailed. This difference also explains why Moshe did not run back to the camp, but rather remained at the top of the mountain at Chorev. Bringing together all three elements we may say that it was proper organization of the army, in terms of leadership, along with its internal cohesion based on an ethical code and discipline, together with God's strong arm, that led to victory against Amalek.

E. "The Amalekites and the Canaanites dwelling in that mountain"

We have noted the discrepancy between the description of the battle in Sefer Shemot and the account in Sefer Devarim, and accordingly we drew a distinction between the first day of the battle - the day of the "fall," in Sefer Devarim - and the second day - the day of victory, in Sefer Shemot. This explanation rests upon the assumption, accepted unquestioningly among the commentators, that the verses in Parashat Zakhor (in Sefer Devarim) indeed describe the battle against Amalek at Refidim, even though this is not explicit in the text. This generally accepted interpretation presents a considerable problem - most importantly, in terms of justifying the command of uncompromising revenge against Amalek, as presented in Sefer Devarim:

"It shall be, when the Lord your God gives you rest from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, to possess it, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; you shall not forget." (Devarim 25:19)

Why are we called to be so steadfast in avenging a battle that lasted only two days, and which concluded in Amalek's defeat?

It is possible that despite the similarity of the two sources in terms of the command to annihilate Amalek in revenge, they actually describe two different battles. Sefer Shemot describes the battle at Refidim, as mentioned there explicitly. Sefer Devarim, on the other hand, describes the battle that followed the sin of the "ma'apilim" (those who, following God's declaration of punishment for the spies and for the entire nation, decided to proceed on their own towards the Promised Land):

"They got up early in the morning and went up to the top of the mountain, saying: Behold, we are here, and we shall ascend to the place that God said, for we have sinned. But Moshe said: Why, then, are you transgressing God's word? It will not succeed. Do not ascend (for God is not in your midst), lest you be struck down before your enemies. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you will fall by the sword, for you have turned back from following God, and God will not be among you. But they persisted in ascending to the top of the mountain, while the Ark of God's Covenant and Moshe did not move from the midst of the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites, who dwelled in that mountain, and struck them and pursued them as far as Chorma." (Bamidbar 14:40-45).

The battle described here is one of defeat. God and Moshe were not with the people who went up to the top of the mountain, and what happened there helps us to understand what could have happened at Refidim, had Moshe's hands fallen, heaven forbid. We have no way of knowing how many people went up to the top of the mountain, and how many remained in the camp. The text would seem to support the possibility that it was actually the majority that went up, refusing to accept the terrible verdict of forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Thus God's original decree of punishment, prior to Moshe's prayer - that the entire nation would be smitten - was carried out almost in full, since the "ma'apilim" refused to accept the lighter punishment that God settled on in the wake of Moshe's prayer.

The same impression arises from the verses in Sefer Devarim:

"You answered and said to me, 'We have sinned to God; we shall go up and wage war, as all that the Lord our God has commanded us.' So each man took up his weapons and set off to ascend the mountain. But God said to me, 'Tell them: You shall not go up, nor shall you wage war, for I am not in your midst, in order that you not be smitten before your enemies.' I spoke to you but you did not listen; you rebelled against God's word and went resolutely to ascend the mountain. Then the Emorites, who dwell in that mountain, came towards you, and pursued you as bees do, and smote you in Se'ir as far as Chorma." (Devarim 1:41-44)

The text would seem to indicate that Moshe is referring to the majority of the nation (although this is not necessarily so).

Let us try to describe what happened in the camp at the time.

The spies set off on their mission while Benei Yisrael were encamped at Kadesh Barnea (Devarim 1:20); they returned there at the conclusion of their mission (Bamidbar 13:26). Kadesh Barnea is on the eastern side of the Sinai desert, while the mountains of the Negev loom above it at a thousand meters above sea level and more. The main peaks above Kadesh are Mount Charif, Mount Sagui, Mount Ramon, Arif, Mount Chorsha, and Barnea. Most have a very steep descent westward, towards the Sinai desert. The spies were commanded to ascent towards the Negev. Since the "ma'apilim" did not accept the decree concerning the forty years of wandering, they ascended to the top of the mountain. The heat must have been intense, in the month of Av (according to the Mishna, Taanit 4:6) in the Sinai Desert. The Amalekites most probably laid in wait for them near the end of their ascent, when the "ma'apilim" were tired and faint from the steep climb in the burning heat, when God was not in their midst. And it is perhaps this that the text refers to in the words, "When you were tired and weary, and did not fear God" (Devarim 25:18).

In any event, the Amalekites fully exploited the great weariness of the "ma'apilim," smote them as far as Chorma, pursued them as bees do, and butchered them without mercy. As stated, we have no way of knowing whether the victims numbered in the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands or perhaps even more.

Moreover, the maimed and anemic camp at Kadesh remained in Kadesh for many more years. From above, with a bird's eye view, the Amalekites observed them, day by day and hour by hour, knowing every movement of Benei Yisrael. They were able to jump out of their hiding place whenever they saw an Israelite boy or girl, or a small, weak group, leaving the camp to perform their bodily needs or to pasture their flocks. They could approach quietly, steal animals, kill children, rape women, and - most importantly - kidnap people for the slave trade in distant places. Following their victory over the "ma'apilim," the Amalekites must clearly have felt far greater confidence, and they made good use of the difference in altitude, the many hiding places in the mountain peaks, and the fact that the Divine Presence was removed from the Israelite camp for the next thirty-eight years. The nation, bereft of the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud in whose shadow they had rested, was left exposed to the wiles of every enemy and attacker, every robber and kidnapper. The Amalekites, in whose shadow Benei Yisrael were now forced to survive, managed to embitter the lives of Benei Yisrael throughout their stay in the desert.

We can now understand the Torah's call for revenge during the fortieth year, when the nation left the nightmare of the desert and its Amalekite neighbors for good. In the second year, Amalek struck the "ma'apilim" as far as Chorma. This was a mortal blow that met with no response. During the next almost forty years, Amalek made the lives of Benei Yisrael miserable in the desert, attacking the weaklings, plundering and enslaving them, until the hiding of the Divine Presence came to an end in the fortieth year. Here, alongside the news, "It will be, when you come to the land...," adjacent to the parasha detailing the declaration to be recited upon bringing one's first fruits to the Temple, and to the parasha describing the covenant to be made between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival concerning the inheritance of the land, the Torah commands us to engage in a war of annihilation against our bitter enemy.


Let us summarize what we have said thus far concerning the sin of Amalek - a sin which justifies, in the eyes of Torah, the command to annihilate them; we shall then also add one further point.

1. Amalek, a nation of desert nomads with meager land resources, sustained itself primarily by controlling observation points high in the Edomite mountains, the Negev mountains and the "great mountain" in Sinai, over the roads crossing the desert: the "king's highway" east of the Jordan, the way of Mount Se'ir, the Arava road, and the other roads connecting Aram to the Red Sea, Egypt to Eretz Canaan, and perhaps even the roads in the Arabian Peninsula. They exploited this control for the purposes of plundering isolated caravans on the lengthy roads and kidnapping free people to sell at the slave markets in Egypt and elsewhere. People who left their homes and their families to make a living never returned. Respected merchants became slaves in foreign lands until they died. The Torah abhors slavery, as expressed in the commandment that contradicts all the laws of a world where slavery is tolerated: "You shall not hand over a slave to his master if he has fled to you from his master. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he chooses in one of your gates where it pleases him; you shall not oppress him." (Devarim 23:16-17)

The Torah's severely negative attitude towards slavery in general, and kidnapping for this purpose in particular (a sin punishable by death), arises from two sources. One relates to the inter-personal sphere, with its roots in the Torah's attitude towards the story of Yosef and his brothers. The second relates to the relationship between man and God, and specifically to the kidnapping of Jews to sell as slaves: "For they are My servants, whom I brought forth from the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondsmen." (Vayikra 25:42)

There is no greater contradiction to the message of the Exodus, and the related commandment, "I am the Lord your God...," than the kidnapping of a Jew for sale as a slave. In the case of Amalek, who kidnapped for nationalistic reasons rather than for personal reasons, this is all the more abhorrent. It was in this sense that Amalek tried to "prevail over God." Until their defeat at Refidim, the Exodus was not yet complete; until their ultimate, final defeat in the future - so long as the slave markets flourish from the sale of by-passers in distress, and so long as Israel is in danger of being enslaved once again in the Egyptian house of bondage or elsewhere - God's Name is not complete, nor is His Throne complete.

2. In Refidim, in Tziklag, in the Canaanite Negev, in the Yerachme'elite Negev and elsewhere, Amalek avoided face-to-face combat with armed, trained soldiers. They preferred not to assume the risk and the price of declaring war openly, but rather to attack unprotected, weak populations not trained to fight back. Humanity, for the most part, has recognized that even war has rules and limitations, for without them the world cannot exist for any length of time. Even in prison, among criminals and people with twisted minds, even in the midst of bitter battles for survival, there are recognized, accepted rules. The hidden recesses of the collective human conscience have given rise to the rules of reward and punishment, gratitude for good and revenge for evil, a distinction between loyalty and treachery, and the limitations on harming the defenseless. These values are found even among primitive societies, and even in corrupt ones. They have found expression in limited ways, in sometimes terribly distorted understandings, but nevertheless, they have become part of the collective human consciousness and are accepted today as international law, which draws a distinction between cruel and relentless soldiers, on one hand, and war criminals, on the other - the latter acting with no limitations and no moral rules whatsoever.

The strategy of attacking the rear, the weak, weary and thirsty, the policy of attacking defenseless towns such as Tziklag, empty of its fighting men - this was not the accepted style of warfare. It was a war crime. It was the style of Amalek.

The two points that we have raised here concerning the nature of Amalek's warfare and the nature of their occupation and sustenance, give rise to a question as to the Torah's commandment for all generations to annihilate Amalek: Is the Torah's command based upon the idea of revenge and repayment towards a nation that sinned against us in the desert, hence relating to Amalek's actual biological descendants, or does it continue to be based upon Amalek's sin, thus relating to Amalek's ideological disciples in future generations? These disciples may be actual descendants of Amalek, but not necessarily so. It seems possible, at least theoretically, that Amalek's biological descendants would mend their ways, while others - who are not biological descendants - would continue in that evil path, such that the obligation to annihilate them would apply.

3. Neither the savage butchery by Amalek of the "ma'apilim," whose numbers - once again - we shall never know, nor the possibility that the Amalekites made the lives of Benei Yisrael miserable throughout the many years of their stay at Kadesh Barnea, necessarily bears the distinctive stamp of Amalek. They therefore have no additional human aspect beyond what we have already said, but they certainly justify profound hostility between Israel (representing God) and Amalek, and an equally profound desire for revenge. To this consideration we must add the existential threat that Amalek presented to Israel from the south, from the south-west and from the east. All of these come together to explain the Torah's command to wipe out the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens.

Translated by Kaeren Fish