I usually sing a pardoy sing on Parshas Zachor. A few years ago, it was Hamilton, last year a song from Encanto. This year, I asked some people which song I should cover. One friend suggested I cover a song called, Unholy. I found the song on YouTube… and about ten seconds into the song, I turned it off. And deleted my search history…
Someone else suggested I take one of the songs Rihanna sang at the Superbowl. I did not watch the game or the halftime show, so I asked her what she sang… and I quickly decided, no.
It reminded me of an experience I had in high school. I went to a Yeshiva high school and the school’s rule was that we were not allowed to be in possession of CD’s with non-Jewish music. A friend of mine had one of his CD’s confiscated; it was an Eminem album. Our principal was a very wise and out of the box thinker. Instead of getting this boy in trouble, he preferred to teach us why this rule existed. So the next day, he walked into our class with a print out of all the lyrics and started reading them, without skipping nay words. There were Eminem lyrics. For those of you who don’t know who he is, G-d bless you. For those who do, you could just imagine our faces turning colors as this bearded rabbi made us squirm in our seats.
He was trying to make a point. It’s not “just music.” There are messages that are problematic. Or maybe that’s too mild of a word. There are messages that are wrong. Immoral. Incorrect. And we should not be listening to them.
It took me a long time to appreciate his message, but it eventually sunk in, and I’d like to share how and why, but first let me tell you about a class I did not give this past week. Earlier this week, I spoke at WIT, the Women’s Institute of Torah. When they invited me, knowing that I’d be speaking a few days before Parshas Zachor, I offered to give a lecture on the morality of destroying Amaleik; the Mitzvah that we read about today, how we are mandated to destroy the men, women, and children of the nation of Amaleik. I was hoping to address the moral quandary; how could G-d command us to commit genocide? The organizers suggested that I choose a different topic; “The attendees,” I was told, “are not bothered by this question. If G-d says to do it, then we do. No. questions. asked.”
I was quite taken by that comment. On the one hand, I admire anyone who has such submission to G-d, that no matter what He says, we recognize that He is the ultimate arbiter of morality, good and evil, and so if it’s a Mitzvah, it is, by definition, positive. There’s a part of me that wishes I had that type of humility and faith. If G-d said so, it’s good.
On the other hand, I can’t ignore that fact that I am troubled by this Mitzvah. Why are we instructed to kill not only the soldiers, not only the men, but the women and children of this nation of Amaleik? Why are we instructed to kill not only the Amaleikim who attacked us in the desert, but all of their descendants? What did they do wrong?!
We are not the first to grapple with this question. It’s worth noting that the Rambam’s position on this Mitzvah is that we are to kill them only if they reject our overtures for peace; if they agree to live peacefully with the Jewish People, then the Mitzvah of destroying Amaleik does not apply.
While that makes it a little easier to understand, most commentators and understand the Mitzvah to destroy Amaleik applies even if they claim to want to live peacefully with the Jewish People. Instead, the Ramban and Abarbanel describe Amaleik as a nation that is intrinsically immoral. There is something in their spiritual DNA that is broken and unfixable. This is why we are commanded to destroy them.
I imagine for many of you, myself included, that does not sit so well. Does it?
Thankfully, this is an academic discussion. The nation of Amaleik no longer exists. And so, there is no group of people whom we are commanded to destroy. And yet, despite its seeming irelevance, we read Parshas Zachor every year. It is the only Torah reading of the entire year that is Biblically mandated. We are going to have a second reading of Parshas Zachor after davening for those who missed the first one. It is quite clearly a critical passage with an eternal message. What is it? What are we, in 2023, with no Amaleik in sight, expected to learn from this passage that elevates the genocide of a particular nation?
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, in his commentary on the Megillah, provides an incredibly important idea that puts the destruction of Amaleik in a brand-new and especially relevant light. He begins by acknowledging the dangers of hatred. Hatred is poisonous. Hatred is blinding. Hatred is contagious and toxic. And yet, hatred is also important, even critical, for a moral society to exist. Because if we tolerate evil, if we are forever looking for the good in others, if we are unwilling to say something is wrong, if we close our ears to physical or spiritual threats, then not only does the wolf devour the lamb, but the moral fabric of our society gets shred into pieces.
And so, in Judaism, we use a word that Western society has done away with – sin. And in Judaism, sinners are punished for their sins. “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do,” is not a Jewish idea. Neither is the modern application of this idea, where all is relative and contextual. Last year a movie came out called Joker. It shared a backstory to the infamous Batman nemesis. By the time you were finished the movie, you were meant to feel compassion for this man who (in the movie) kills innocent people. It’s part of a genre of movies in which there is no such thing as evil, but that’s an insidious idea. Meaning, we do not diagnose and therefore excuse Hitler because he was paranoid. We do not diagnose and therefore excuse Stalin because he was schizophrenic. No. We read in today’s Haftorah how one of our greatest prophets, Shmuel, upon hearing that Agag, the king of Amaleik was spared, took a knife and executed him on his own. Hate, when properly directed, is of value, it reflects a conviction that we acknowledge and differentiate between good and evil.
And so, we are commanded to hate. Yes, hate. Because “Ohavei Hashem, those who love G-d,” writes King David, “sinu ra, they hate evil.” Indifference to evil is not a moral value, it’s a reflection of moral apathy. Someone with a strong sense of right and wrong has an emotional response to evil. “This” explains Rabbi Lamm, “is the basic motif of the commandment to read the Biblical portion of Amalek, and to observe the festival of Purim.” It’s not all fun and games.
I am not a very hateful person. I get angry like everyone else. I get frustrated at people. But I don’t recall hating someone; it’s just not in my psyche. Rabbi Lamm is teaching us, teaching me that that is a problem. Being too forgiving, too understanding, too accepting is morally flawed. We need to live with conviction. We need to care deeply about the world around us. We cannot shrug when we hear of someone doing something evil. It needs to hurt. We cannot dismiss every evil act with rationalizations, their terrible childhood, or the difficulties with which they live, or some other explanation. And for the same reason we cannot listen or take in videos or even music that normalizes twisted behavior. We need to call out evil when we see it. “Ohavei Hashem, sinu ra. One who truly loves G-d and good, despises what is evil.”
But please note, in 2023, without a living, breathing Amaleik, hatred is an emotion, it’s a feeling we are encouraged to experience, but it is not an action. Yes, “hakam l’harg’cha hashkeim l’horgo,” when someone attacks us or threatens us, we are allowed and even encouraged to fight back against the attacker – and the attacker only, to prevent harm, even if that means taking a life. But beyond the emotion of hatred, we are not to act on it. In Jewish law and thought, there is no justification for vengeance carried out by man. There is no justification for allowing our emotions to spill over into violent or even destructive actions. There is no justification to take the law into one’s own hands. When people burn down a city in response to evil, that is not taking the law into one’s hands. That too is evil.
The Maharal of Prague was once asked, “The Sages teach us to emulate G-d’s compassion and kindness. ‘Mah hu rachum, af ata rachum. Why are we not instructed to emulate G-d’s vengeance and wrath? The Torah also describes G-d’s rage and violence?”
The Maharal explained that we should, but we can’t. It’s impossible to perfectly calibrate any emotion, but if we make a mistake and love someone a little too much, nisht geferlech, it’s not the end of the world. But if we make a mistake and hate someone excessively, the damage is too great, and so we don’t.
We hate in our hearts, we hate in our minds, but we do not hate with our hands, nor do we even hate with our words.
We act in self-defense. We have an IDF that protects us.
We have, if we need to, the right to defend ourselves if attacked, to even preempt an attack if we know of someone in particular who is out to get us.
And we spend time on Purim, reflecting on all those who tried to kill us, physically and spiritually. We stamp then out. We boo them. It is immoral not to hate evil.
But when hate gets out of control, when we cannot distinguish between Amaleik and other gentiles, when we cannot distinguish between terrorists and Arabs – yes, even those who live in a city filled with terrorists, when we cannot distinguish between thought and action, that too is immoral, and terribly dangerous.
The State of Israel is going through one of its most difficult times. It’s a tinderbox of powerful emotions that can, at any moment, heaven forbid, explode. It’s already starting to explode. They need our prayers. They need our support. They need our modeling, how to be filled with conviction without taking undue action.
I conclude with a hope and prayer from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm: “I want (them) [my children],” he wrote, “to know that there is a moral law which requires that those who have placed themselves outside morality deserve not our love but our contempt. I want my children to have available for themselves the psychological relief in hating those who deserve it, so that,” and here are the key words – “they can relate to all others constructively and lovingly. I want them to be halakhic Jews, and thus to handle hatred with extreme circumspection and caution and great care; and so, in effect, they will hate without hurt, and express their innate hostility toward evil by stamping and stomping and groggering … By restricting our hatred to evil and those who personify it … by chanting the commandment to obliterate Amalek and by hissing and booing at the mention of Haman’s name, we shall learn to act lovingly to all [of] G-d’s creatures.”