This Shabbat we read Parashat Zachor – 3 pesukim which command us to remember what Amalek did to us after we left Egypt and to utterly destroy their memory. This has to be one of the hardest mitzvot in the Torah to understand from a moral/ethical standpoint. Hashem is asking us to commit genocide. For sure Amalek committed a heinous crime by attacking the old and the young but how can we justify the killing of an entire nation – men, women and children? Not to mention this law doesn’t apply to the Egyptians or the Greeks or the Romans who caused great harm to the Jewish people over the years.
So what was so bad about their attack? The nation of Amalek were descended from Esav. Although Esav made a tentative peace with Yaakov, Esav still passed on to his children and grandchildren a hatred for the Jewish people. A hatred so severe that they were willing to travel hundreds of miles from their home to kill innocent Jews. Amalek were unlike any other nation because they attacked us for no reason other than pure hatred. We weren’t looking to conquer their land and we didn’t stand in their way either.
The Rambam in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1-4) explains that the commandment to wipe out Amalek is only applicable when Amalek refuses to keep the 7 mitzvot that Noah was commanded (Not to murder, not to steal, not to commit sexual immorality, not to worship idols, not to blaspheme the name of God, not to eat an animal while it is still alive and to set up law courts.) In a way, the Rambam is saying it is the behavior of Amalek that is the problem, if we were to re-educate them, they would no longer be Amalek.
Amalek also had another problem other than their lack of moral behavior and hatred of the Jews and that was that they didn’t believe in God. The verse states that ‘he did not fear God’. This was the very reason that Amalek attacked the way they did when they did it. All the other nations were terrified of the Jewish people and Hashem but Amalek said we don’t fear God and went off to attack us. Amalek failed in their mission to destroy us but they did succeed in their audacity to attack God. Hashem said the problem with Amalek was they were the moral opposite of us. That is the reason we have to blot out their way of life completely. However, if they change their ways then the mitzvah no longer applies.