Amalek, the archetypical enemy of the People Israel (and ancestor of Haman), launched a ruthless attack against the Israelites during the wilderness period, targeting the weakest and most vulnerable. The Torah requires unrelenting war against Amalek, demanding we destroy all traces, all descendants of this ancient foe (Deuteronomy 25:19). The verses prescribing this bellicose Commandment were the very first I learned to chant from the Torah as a pre-Bar Mitzvah boy.

Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chayim) lists this Commandment as the very last among the Mitzvot still practicable in the modern era (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot Ha-Katzar). He pointedly observes, however, that “we no longer know who the people of Amalek are” – and must wait for the Prophet Elijah to identify them when he comes to announce the arrival of the Messiah.

Of course, the Chofetz Chayim understood that the Messianic Era will be one of lasting peace… free of war and bloodshed. Our war against Amalek will be but a bad memory. He nevertheless included the war against Amalek among modern Mitzvot to emphasize that it is our religious duty not to confuse contemporary detractors with the worst of Israel’s historic enemies. Even war requires moral restraint.

As Lao Tzu put it: “Our enemies are not demons, but human beings like ourselves.”

(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)

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