We have faced Amaleks like Putin forever, but with morality we can prevail J. – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on September 9, 2022

TheTorah columnis supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.Ki TeitzeiDeuteronomy 21:1025:19

As the years go on, it becomes more and more clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is evil.

Putins decision to invade Ukraine has led to the displacement of millions of Ukrainians, cities being razed, a mounting casualty count and reports of war crimes by the Russian military. Of course, Putins brutality predates his invasion of Ukraine. He previously led horrible wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and his support for the Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad has kept another brutal leader in power.

In this weeks Torah portion Ki Teitzei, we read about Amalek, the perennial enemy of the Jewish people who attacked the vulnerable, famished and weary stragglers among those who were fleeing Egypt.

One can attempt to psychoanalyze Putin and learn about his obsession with Russian nationalism, but his disregard for basic ethical standards makes him a modern-day Amalek.

Amalek is identified in our portion as lo yirah elohim, someone who doesnt revere God (Deuteronomy 25:18). As the Torah empresses upon us, Elohim is a God of morality, a God who at the pivotal moment of revelation offers the people Israel the Ten Commandments an ethical code. By impressing upon us that Amalek not only attacks the innocent but also rejects Elohim, our portion depicts Amalek as a character who rejects morality.

These verses from our portion go on to instruct us on how to respond to Amalek. Deuteronomy 25:19 tells us that when we enter the promised land and God grants us safety from all of our enemies, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

The wide sweep of Jewish commentary on these verses offers invaluable wisdom on how to respond to contemporary Amaleks.

To begin with, the Jewish tradition at an early point dismisses the idea that Amalek refers to any specific ethnic group. The rabbis of the Talmud argued in Berakhot 28a that it was no longer possible to determine who was descended from Amalek.

Amalek therefore endured in Jewish consciousness as a perennial foe who disregards morality. By being commanded to remember Amalek, we are taught to always be vigilant against the human propensity toward evil.

This offers us a useful lesson. With Putin and his invasion of Ukraine thousands of miles away, we are called on to remain vigilant even if the fighting does not immediately affect us.

There is also a strain in our tradition articulated most notably by the medieval commentator Nachmanides (Rambam) and by the Hasidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev that we are to internalize this commandment to wipe out Amalek. The Berdichever Rebbe wrote, each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart.

We can learn from the Berdichever Rebbe to respond to the evil of the Putins of the world by filling the world with righteousness.

But I find the most compelling lesson for our times comes from the story of how the Israelites defeated Amalek originally.

The battle against the Amalekites first appears in Exodus 17. When Moses holds up his arms, the people Israel prevail in battle against the Amelikites, but when he tires and lowers his arms, the Amelikites gain the upper hand. And so Aaron and Hur hold up Moses hands and the people Israel prevail.

This story has tremendous symbolic power. It is only by partnering with Elohim, this God who is so concerned with morality, and collectively holding up Moses arms that we can prevail against Amalek.

This teaches us that human partnership and faith in the ultimate triumph of morality will be the way to defeat the Amaleks of the world.

How does this apply to Putin? Even for those of us who are not directly affected by Putins misdeeds, watching the consequences of his actions can take a psychic toll. We can feel helpless before the ongoing nihilism and violence.

But perhaps this image from the Book of Exodus can offer us hope. We have faced Amaleks for our entire existence. Our tradition teaches us to believe that by partnering with others who believe in the importance of a moral world order, we can ultimately prevail.

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We have faced Amaleks like Putin forever, but with morality we can prevail J. - The Jewish News of Northern California

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