Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. If this is so, then history has been quite the poet as of late. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, inevitably calls to mind the horrors of the past and forces the entire world to confront whether this time will be different. Jews, however, are called to do something else. Rather than turn to the past to predict the future, they must look to the Torah to understand the present. Where historians attempt to discover the immutable rules of history, a Jew looks to the Torah and sees the eternal word of God.
Few rabbis have done a more brilliant job of understanding their time through the lens of the Torah than Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel (1882-1945), an important rabbinic figure and brilliant darshan in early twentieth century European Jewry who later moved to Israel and become a leader of Religious Zionism. In watching the news these past weeks, my thoughts turned to a derashah he wrote for Parshat Zakhor about a century ago either during or in the aftermath of World War I. For most of Jewish history, Amalek has remained a figure the Jewish people cannot seem to escape. Anti-semitism in its various forms has kept alive the specter of a nation that strikes the Jewish people without reason or mercy. For many rabbis, Amalek was not a historical relic but a contemporary reality. But where most exuberantly identified Amalek with those who oppressed the Jews, Rav Amiel perceived Amalek as a threat to the world at large. It was not to be identified with a particular person or nation but with an ethos.
“Militarism,” he explains, is “the symbol of Amalek.” Living through the horrors of World War I, as he did, it’s not hard to understand why. Militarism is a worldview that espouses the belief that a people or state should maintain a strong military and use it aggressively to pursue its national interests. It often goes hand in hand with chauvinistic nationalism, and together they often serve as the driving force for why one country invades another. Throughout much of the 19th century, there was a delicate balance of power between countries like Germany, England, France, and Russia, but as each sought to increase its influence and its military might, tensions heightened. When war finally broke out, the great powers relished the opportunity to expand their empires all for the sake of power, no matter the cost in human life. To those not caught up in nationalistic fervor, the needlessness of the bloody war was readily apparent. For Rav Amiel, militarism captures the essence of Amalek, a worldview that sees war as an end unto itself.
Even with a superficial examination we can feel in Amalek the symbol of militarism, that the sword is not only a means to an end, but the very purpose of life… Those that go out to war do so not because they have to or because they have no choice… only in war can they find a way to distinguish themselves and their ego.
What distinguishes Amalek from other nations is that it raises its sword not because it must but because it can. Because it is an opportunity to demonstrate its power, its ability to dominate the other. This can be seen, Rav Amiel explains, in the way that Amalek attacked the Jewish people after leaving Egypt. Rather than striking the able-bodied men, Amalek “cut down the stragglers in the back” (Deuteronomy 25:18). They did this not to achieve a military objective but because the stragglers represented those too physically weak to keep up. Their very existence was an affront to Amalek because, “Amalek hates the weak… and desires to be amongst those who oppress others.” According to Rav Amiel, Amalek represents a will to power that sees war and violence as an ultimate good, because it separates the strong from the weak.
A century later, it’s not hard to see Russia’s actions in the picture that Rav Amiel paints. Putin’s propaganda is built around the image of a strong and mighty Russia with him as the powerful leader at its helm. Dictatorial in rule, his authority is legitimated by his toughness and a willingness to use violence against all who oppose him both inside his borders and beyond. Ukraine’s existence is a threat not because of its military but because of its democracy, a fact that makes it weak in Putin’s eyes and an affront to Russia’s honor. War presents the opportunity for Putin to demonstrate Russia’s greatness and make clear to the entire world that those who are weak must bend to those who are strong. No one knows where this war will take the world, but we all know the profound devastation it can leave in its wake.
What then is the proper response to Amalek? How does one defeat those who would violently oppress the weak just to glorify themselves? For Rav Amiel, the answer is clear. When Amalek strikes, one must of course defend oneself and all those in harm’s way, just as the Jewish people did in the desert. When Amalek comes with the sword, one must pick up one’s own, for there is no morality in going like sheep to the slaughter. So too it would seem the same is true in our current moment. Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion is a deeply just cause and one should do all that one can to support them. Their attempts to defend themselves after being needlessly attacked reflects a sincere and profound moral effort in the face of the kind of evil that only Amalek can bring to the world.
Even so, Rav Amiel makes clear that no permanent victory against Amalek can be achieved with the sword. If militarism, the turning of strength into an idol, is the essence of Amalek, then the battle against Amalek can never be limited to a specific enemy. In truth, he contends, the battle against Amalek is a war against the very idea of war itself and it cannot be won through violence and military might. He writes:
The approach of Judaism is that the prosecutor cannot be made a defense attorney. Evil cannot be uprooted from the world with evil. Terror cannot be eliminated from the world by responding with terror.
For Rav Amiel, this assertion is not just philosophical but one rooted in a close reading of the Torah. Joshua’s military victory over Amalek was only temporary as Amalek fled to fight another day. The secret to Amalek’s final defeat was not to be found on the battlefield but in God’s instructions to Moses afterwards: “write this in a book as a reminder” (Exodus 17:14). One defends against Amalek with the sword but Amalek can only truly be defeated with the book, i.e. the Torah. The book is mightier than the sword not because it can be used as a weapon but because it invokes a power not rooted in physical force, yet a power that compels all the same. If Amalek brings violence and death to the world, its defeat is contingent on humanity’s internalization of the Torah’s fundamental message: all human life is created in the image of God and attacking those who have done nothing wrong is an affront to all that is holy in this world.
The Jewish people, Rav Amiel explains, were chosen by God to be an alternative to Amalek. If Amalek hates the weak, Jews are meant to love them. If Amalek identifies with the oppressor, Jews are meant to identify with the oppressed. God’s chosen people are meant to stand in opposition to Amalek for God’s very name is peace and the Jewish people have been tasked in helping bring it to the world. For Rav Amiel, this idea is at the heart of the Jewish people’s victory over Amalek celebrated on Purim. When targeted by Haman without justification, violence was not the Jewish people’s first choice of action, but as it became clear that Achashverosh’s decree could not be undone, the Jews had no choice but to defend themselves. Though the story of Purim is often viewed as a cautionary tale about the dangers of Jewish weakness and the importance of Jewish strength, seeing it this way misses a fundamental point. The megillah goes to great lengths to make clear that the holiday is to be celebrated not on the day of the military victory, as is the case for all other nations, but on the day afterwards. The Jews successfully defended themselves, but they do not celebrate the war but rather the peace. In fact, celebrating the peace is so important that the holiday becomes split into different days depending on where Jews live, a deeply strange fact considering the deeply held Jewish awareness that a shared calendar is what serves to unify the Jewish people. Nevertheless, affirming peace, rather than war is simply too great a value. Rav Amiel makes clear that “the Jewish people hate war and even a war of self-defense” and to be among “the children of Jacob” is to feel as Jacob did when forced to confront his brother Esau. It is to “be afraid of killing more than being fearful of being killed.”
One might think that humanity has achieved some level of progress in its war on Amalek since Rav Amiel’s time. After the horrors of World War II, international law greatly expanded to regulate and limit war, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was accepted as the basis for how political systems were to be judged. Rav Amiel would no doubt see these as significant achievements, but already in his time, he recognized that people often talk about peace while still pursuing war. In this, he discerns a fundamental hypocrisy all too common to the modern international order that makes moral claims but rarely, if ever, lives up to them. It is all too often the case, he explains, that nations will condemn the violence of others while ceaselessly using it to pursue their own needs. He writes, “It is like the thief that runs together with the community and screams in a loud voice, ‘search for the thief!’” Countries quickly learn that it is more effective to take up the rhetoric of morality rather than its practice, a fact proven easily by perusing the list of countries currently sitting on the UN Human Rights Council. As Rav Amiel notes, what is often found today is that “The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22). Under such conditions, morality is determined not by what is right, but by what the powerful can get away with.
While it would be easy to see this criticism as being directed at the rest of the world, particularly those powerful nations which abuse their might and political influence, Rav Amiel notes that the verse itself is directed not at Esau but Jacob. Though a leader of Religious Zionism, he did not hesitate to criticize what he saw as Zionism’s own tendencies towards militarism, and he recognized that a moral critique of other countries could be used by the Jewish people to deflect their own moral failings. Until they could rectify them, the Jewish people would be unable to help lead the battle against Amalek. As he wrote:
Regarding that which we desire from of the non-Jewish nations, in truth we must admit that for us as well, the hands are far from the voice. “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau” was first said about Jacob himself… How is it possible for us to influence others as long as not all is correct regarding us in this matter?
If we are to take Rav Amiel’s teaching seriously, then Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine places a special weight of responsibility upon the Jewish people and Israel in particular. Not just because hundreds of thousands of Jews live in Ukraine, but because the role of the Jewish people in the battle against Amalek in the world must be like that of Moses who stood above the battlefield in a position where he could be seen by others. As long as Moses’ arms were raised, the Jewish people were victorious, but when his hands fell, the tide turned, and Amalek began winning the battle. So too the Jewish people must do the same if they are to help the world defeat Amalek. According to Rav Amiel, Moses’ upstretched arms represent the true arms of Jacob, arms upon which tefillin can be seen embodying the teachings of the Torah and its message of morality and holiness:
If we want Israel to overcome the Amaleks of the world, it is upon us to do that which we are commanded in our Torah. “When Moses raised his arms and Israel was victorious.” We must raise our arms in a place visible to the entire world. It will be clear to all “the holiness” of the tefillin on our arms and Israel will be victorious.
Rav Amiel’s clarity of vision about the modern dangers of militarism and war feel not only prescient but grasp dimensions of the current situation in Ukraine that many seem to miss. Self-defense is justified and must be supported, yet militarism cannot be defeated with the sword alone. Furthermore, the Jewish people will always have a unique role in such moments if only in the attempt to lead by example while also recognizing that they often fall far short in doing so. Rav Amiel also reminds us that even if Ukraine defends itself and Russia is sent back in retreat, the fight against Amalek remains. It is not a battle against a specific enemy; the hero of today can be the villain of tomorrow. It is a war against the very idea of war itself, and it can only be won with the Book and the moral message it demands us all to listen to.