Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Amalek and Military Ethics

When R. Elijah Schochet, author of the biography of the Bach, sent me a copy of his 1992 book Amalek: The Enemy Within, I flipped through it, saw a lot of references to chasidic and kabbalistic commentaries, and decided that it didn't particularly interest me. For some reason, this year before Purim I was moved to take another look at the book and was very surprised by what I found. R. Schochet takes a topical survey of the various approaches to explain the concept of Amalek. He categorizes the different approaches, cognizant of the chronology of commentators but not a slave to it, and gives brief summaries of samples from each genre and approach to demonstrate the various trends, all with his characteristic eloquence and clarity. What emerges is, on the one hand, a collection of vertlakh (short Torah insights) on Amalek and, on the other hand, a study of how different rabbinic thinkers approach the topic in their own ways. I found the book to be enlightening and enjoyable.

Here is one approach that I found interesting:

As noted earlier, many reasons are cited for Joshua's having been chosen as military leader of Israel. However, the homilist R. Zevi Hirsch of Vilna in his Maggid Mesharim suggests that the true reason for Joshua's selection was due to Moses' ethical sensitivities. Moses was concerned that the Israelites might adopt Amalekite tactics in their battle plan against Amalek! R. Zevi points out how it is common practice for warring armies to carefully study and emulate on another's military tactics and procedures:

"Behold, the Torah has described the nature of the weapons of Amalek, i.e., a lack of reverence for the Lord. More horrible than all else are the evil attributes and abominable cruelties perpetrated by man in this state of faithlessness. For, if one has no fear of any divine power, there will be no restraints upon his lusts, and he will do whatever his heart desires, for he reasons that there is neither judge nor judgment... only a reverence for the Lord can possible restrain and control one's behavior...

But, what if Israel should choose to emulate Amalek and employ his tactics? Why should we not practice deceptions, deceits... robbery, murder, all possible worldly abominations? Since they are his weapons of war, we, too, shall employ them!"

It is for this reason that Moses chose Joshua to lead the Israelites into battle, confident that Joshua would not stoop to employing Amalek's reprehensible military stratagems. The only proper weapons of Israel are "fear of the Lord" and "ethical commitments." Only by means of sincere faith and compassionate living can Israel hope to triumph.

Maggid Mesharim presents an interesting theory as to why this "ethical approach" is bound to succeed:

"When the nations of the world perceive Israel practicing righteousness, integrity, kindness and compassion toward all peoples, they will perforce assent with an "amen," and proclaim, 'There is no nation as righteous as Israel.'"

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