Bnai Yisrael’s Responsibility to Destroy Amalek

And Hashem Said to Moshe: Write this as a record in a book and place it in the ears of Yehoshua, that I will destroy the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. (Sefer Shemot 17:14)

And it will be when Hashem gives you rest from all of your enemies that surround you in the land that Hashem your G-d gives to you to possess, you should destroy the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget. (Sefer Devarim 25:19)

1. Two versions of Amalek’s destruction
Bnai Yisrael were saved from the Egyptians through wonderful miracles. They traveled from the Reed Sea toward Mount Sinai. At Sinai, they would receive the Torah. As they traveled, they were attacked by the nation of Amalek. Moshe instructs Yehoshua to assemble an army and to battle Amalek. Moshe ascends to the top of a hill and raises his hands in prayer. Through the combination of Moshe’s prayer and the valor of Yehoshua’s army Amalek is defeated.

Following the victory, Hashem commands Moshe to record the events and to enjoin Yeshoshua to preserve the record. He further tells Moshe that He will do battle with Amalek throughout the generations until even the memory of this wicked nation is eradicated.

Moshe reviews this incident in his final message to Bnai Yisrael. However, Moshe’s address includes an additional element. He tells Bnai Yisrael that it is their responsibility to destroy Amalek. It seems that Moshe’s message is somewhat different from the message communicated in Parshat BeShalach. In the passages in Parshat BeShalach, the only charge given to Bnai Yisrael is to remember the wickedness of Amalek. Hashem declares that He will wage war with Amalek throughout the generations. Moshe’s address shifts the responsibility for retribution to Bnai Yisrael. Bnai Yisrael is to destroy Amalek.

And he said: For the hand is upon the throne of Hashem. Hashem is at war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Sefer Shemot 17:16)

2. Hashem’s oath to destroy Amalek
Moshe elaborates on Hashem’s commitment to destroy Amalek. He declares that Hashem has placed His hand upon His throne and He has sworn that He will do battle with Amalek throughout the generations.

It is clear from Moshe’s declaration that the imperative to destroy Amalek is somehow unique. In this instance Hashem – so to speak – takes an oath that He will destroy the nation. Hashem had previously told Moshe that He would punish Egypt for its persecution of Bnai Yisrael and its denial of His kingship. However, Hashem did not accompany this assurance with an oath. Hashem tells Bnai Yisrael that they will be His agent for destroying the pagan nations of the Land of Cana’an. These nations are both religiously and morally degenerate. They deserve to be eradicated. Nonetheless, Hashem does not take an oath regarding their destruction. What distinguished Amalek and evoked Hashem’s solemn oath that He would destroy them?

Remember that which Amalek did to you on the road when you went forth from Egypt. They came upon you on the road. They struck from behind all those who were weak. You were tired and weary and they did not fear Hashem. (Sefer Devarim 25:17-18)

And Amalek came and waged war with Bnai Yisrael at Refidim. (Sefer Shemot 17:8)

3. Amalek’s objective in attacking Bnai Yisrael
In his account of Bnai Yisrael’s encounter with Amalek that Moshe includes in his final address, he adds details that are not part of the account in Parshat BeShalach. He explains that Amalek attacked Bnai Yisrael from behind and focused the attack upon the weakest members of the nation – those who were struggling to keep pace with the march and had fallen back toward the rear of the camp. Moshe also says that Amalek happened upon Bnai Yisrael. This seems to mean that Amalek was not seeking this battle but instead came upon Bnai Yisrael. Amalek assessed the condition of their potential target. They discerned that the people were weary from their travels and undisciplined. They concluded that Bnai Yisrael was a target of opportunity and decided to launch an attack.

The account of the encounter in Parshat BeShalach begins with the statement “Amalek came and waged war with Bnai Yisrael.” This phrasing suggests that Amalek did not merely come upon Bnai Yisrael by accident. The phrasing implies that Amalek came – seemingly with an intent and design – to attack Bnai Yisrael.

Rashi suggests a homiletic solution to this problem. He reinterprets the phrasing of Moshe’s account. According to Rashi, Moshe did not say Amalek “came upon” Bnai Yisrael. He said that Amalek came to “cool off” Bnai Yisrael. Rashi explains that after the nations of the region learned of Bnai Yisrael’s rescue from Egypt and the destruction of the Egyptians at the Reed Sea, they were overcome by fear and awe. Amalek sought out Bnai Yisrael for the purpose of demonstrating that this nation was not invincible. Amalek was determined to “cool off” or moderate the nations’ perception of Bnai Yisrael as unassailable.[1]

Nations heard and they trembled. Terror took hold of the people of Pelashet. Then, the chiefs of Edom were confused and the leaders of Moav were seized with trembling. All of the people of Cana’an melted. (Sefer Shemot 15:14-16)

4. The impact of Egypt’s destruction
Parshat BeShalach describes the destruction of the Egyptians at the Reed Sea. The Egyptians pursued Bnai Yisrael and overtook them at the Reed Sea. Bnai Yisrael was trapped between the sea and the approaching enemy. Moshe stretched forth his arm toward the sea and its waters parted. Bnai Yisrael entered the sea and crossed on a dry sea-bed. The Egyptians pursued Bnai Yisrael into the sea. Suddenly, the water came crashing down upon the Egyptians and they were destroyed. Bnai Yisrael emerged from the sea and saw that their enemies were annihilated. Moshe and the people sang a song of praise to Hashem. This is the Shirat HaYam – the Song of the Sea.

The song describes the destruction of the Egyptians and the might of Hashem. The closing lines describe the impact of Egypt’s utter destruction upon the surrounding nations. It describes their paralyzing terror and uncontrollable dread.

The implication of the Shira is that this impact was one of the objectives of the miracles of the Reed Sea. These miracles were intended as a demonstration for Bnai Yisrael and all of the nations of Hashem’s omnipotence. The demonstration had its impact. The events of the Reed Sea communicated to much of humanity an awe of Hashem and an appreciation of His glory. For a moment in history an unprecedented degree of recognition of Hashem was achieved.

5. The reason Hashem takes an oath to destroy Amalek
Now, Hashem’s oath can be understood. Amalek came with the intent of undoing the events of the Reed Sea. Amalek’s objective was not to protect its territory, secure wealth through spoils, or avenge the Egyptians. Amalek’s purpose was to undermine the objective achieved at the Reed Sea. They sought to demonstrate that Bnai Yisrael could be successfully attacked and that Hashem’s apparent omnipotence was not real. Amalek’s initial success in its attack did have an impact and it produced some diminution in Hashem’s glory.

Amalek’s purpose distinguishes it from the other nations that Hashem has condemned to destruction. Its purpose was to moderate the awe of Hashem that was inspired by the destruction of Egypt and to diminish His glory. It is because of this purpose that Hashem took an oath to destroy Amalek.

And all the assembly of Bnai Yisrael traveled from the Wilderness of Tzin according to their travels by the word of Hashem. And they camped at Refidim and there was no water for the nation to drink. And the nation argued with Moshe and they said, “Give us water and we will drink.” And Moshe said to them, “Why do you argue with me? Why do you test Hashem?” (Sefer Shemot 17:1-2)

6. The rebellion at Refidim and its impact
The Torah notes that Amalek attacked Bnai Yisrael at a place named Refidim. Amalek’s attack is not the only event that the Torah records as taking place at Refidim. The description of this other event directly precedes the Torah’s description of the Amalek’s attack.

Bnai Yisrael arrive at Refidim and discover that there is no water in this place. The people complain to Moshe. He criticizes the people for arguing with him and for testing Hashem. Moshe’s rebuke has no effect. The nation continues to complain with growing intensity. Ultimately, the people question whether Hashem is really in their midst. Moshe prays to Hashem and He provides the nation with water.

This event and the attack of Amalek are juxtaposed in the text. Furthermore, the Torah notes that Amalek attacked Bnai Yisrael at Refidim – the site of the unruly protest just described. The implication is that Amalek’s attack and Bnai Yisrael’s behavior at Refidim are related.

Rashi confirms this interpretation and adds that Bnai Yisrael had reacted to not having water by questioning Hashem’s presence. In other words, they demanded that Hashem provide ongoing proof of His presence through providing for their needs. In response to this attitude, Hashem exposed Bnai Yisrael to the wickedness of Amalek. In this manner He demonstrated that His providence is constant. It is sometimes evident and at other times it is less easily observed. However, even a brief interruption in Hashem’s providence exposes Bnai Yisrael to dangers and threats.[2]

Amalek’s attack did compromise Hashem’s glory. The attack was occasioned and made necessary by Bnai Yisrael’s failings at Refidim. Hashem diminished His glory in order to communicate an important lesson to His people.

7. Bnai Yisrael’s responsibility to destroy Amalek
Now, the account in Parshat BeShalach and Moshe’s address can be reconciled. The restoration of Hashem’s full glory demands that Amalek be destroyed. Hashem takes an oath that Amalek will be destroyed. However, it is Bnai Yisrael’s responsibility to act as Hashem’s agent in His battle with Amalek. This is because Bnai Yisrael is directly responsible for Amalek’s success in its attack and the consequent compromise of Hashem’s glory. Bnai Yisrael’s attitudes at Refidim required a response from Hashem. If Bnai Yisrael was to advance in its relationship with Hashem, the people needed to learn and understand that Hashem’s providence is constant – even when it might not be completely obvious. Each day and each moment Bnai Yisrael is threatened by dangers and enemies of which it is not aware. The failure of these threats to harm Bnai Yisrael is an expression of Hashem’s providence. Hashem demonstrated this principle through Amalek. He allowed Amalek to execute its wicked plan against Bnai Yisrael.

Because Bnai Yisrael’s deficiencies created the necessity for this attack and the consequential diminishment of Hashem’s glory, it is Bnai Yisrael’s responsibility to restore Hashem’s glory. Bnai Yisrael must exact Hashem’s punishment from Amalek.

1. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 25:18.
2. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 17:8.