By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Three individuals inspired me to write this week’s column.
The first is an editor. I have been writing columns on the weekly Torah portion for many years. My columns have been reviewed by quite a few editors. Only once did an editor insist upon censoring a critical phrase from one of my columns.
Many years ago, as a pulpit rabbi, I was invited to be part of a rotation of rabbis who took turns submitting a parsha column to the local Jewish newspaper. My turn coincided with this week’s additional Torah reading, Zachor. In it, we read the verses from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, in which we remember the treachery of our ancient enemy, Amalek. We are commanded to eradicate every trace of this vicious foe from the face of the earth.
I concluded my remarks by quoting from the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 21:4) which enunciates the principle of self-defense: “Haba lehorgecha hashkem lehorgo, When someone attempts to kill you, kill him first.” That is to say, there are situations in which one’s life is threatened and which justify killing another person in self-defense. Kill or be killed. The Jewish people have found themselves in such dire circumstances many times in our history. Aggressive responses to mortal threats are not merely permissible, they are correct and proper. The editor of the newspaper found my words objectionable, and, without my permission, simply omitted them.
I protested then, and still maintain, that when we face an enemy, we must respond assertively. We are misguided if we limit our responses to attempts at dialogue, efforts at persuasion, and programs designed to educate our opponents. We are dealing with enemies who must be stopped by whatever effective means are at our disposal. To borrow a phrase from an article I recently read, “no more Mr. Nice Jew.”
This age-old archenemy, Amalek, operates on many fronts. Often he is murderous. But sometimes he adopts more subtle methods of doing us in. Thus, another Midrash (Shemot Rabba 27:6) quotes a phrase from the Book of Proverbs (Chapter 19, verse 25) to define Amalek. In Hebrew, this verse reads, Leitz takeh ufesi yaarim. One translation renders this: “Strike a scoffer and the simpleton may become shrewd.” Traditional Jewish readers understand leitz to mean not merely a “scoffer,” but a “joker,” or, perhaps, a “clown.”
This brings me to the second source of inspiration for this column. I was but a teenager when I joined an old friend at one of the pre-Purim talks of the late Rabbi Isaac Hutner. He proposed a different translation for the term leitz. He suggested that a leitz was a “cynic,” which he defined as a person who, when confronted with another person’s accomplishments, feels compelled to belittle those accomplishments.
This, for Rabbi Hutner, was and remains Amalek’s strategy. When faced with the Israelites’ triumphant enthusiasm during the early weeks of the Exodus, Amalek dampened their enthusiasm by attacking them. To this very day, we have individuals, including some in our own ranks, who diminish the spiritual enthusiasm of others by deriding them, teasing them, or otherwise denigrating their achievements. Rabbi Hutner urged his audience to avoid such cynicism.
There is yet another technique that Amalek utilizes to attack people of the Jewish faith. He takes aim at our basic belief system and attempts to instill philosophical doubts in our minds. For the linkage of Amalek to agnosticism, I return to the third source of inspiration for this column: an elderly gentleman who years ago frequented the same synagogue as did I. He was adept at the technique known as gematria. Every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value, and profound meanings can be found by comparing the numerical values of different words and phrases in the Bible. The letters that spell out “Amalek” total 240. The letters of the Hebrew word for “doubt,” safek, also total precisely 240.
“This,” proposed my friend, “is Amalek’s secret weapon. Get people to doubt the principles of our faith. Amalek does not only dress in the guise of a Gestapo officer. He sometimes sits in a lounge chair, or across a table over a cup of coffee, and says things that get young Jews to doubt the Almighty and His benevolence.”
Amalek is a tricky adversary and operates on many fronts. He can be murderous. He can be abusive. He can be cynical or insulting, persuasive or even seductive. No wonder we are commanded to devote this particular Shabbat to contemplating this ancient enemy, against whom we must always be on guard, and whose final elimination must be our ultimate goal.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.