In the world of behavioral psychology, one of the most powerful motivators for human behavior is doubt. Human nature dictates that as long as a person is sure of their beliefs and intentions, they cannot be stopped- one need not look farther than the inspiring example of the thousands of olim who come to Israel every year, or the conversely insidious example of equally numerous radical Islamic shaheeds, to see this is true.
A person is most in danger when they are unsure- when they cannot properly understand who they are, or why they’ve chosen any given path of life, this is when anything, no matter how small, seems impossible. This is the danger of doubts.
Chazal famously equated two words by their gematria (240)- עמלק and ספק. In many sources (including Sefer HaMaamarim 5679), this connection is explained as purely spiritual- Amalek, declared by G-d as the ultimate enemy of the Jewish People, can oftentimes be a part of ourselves. When we have doubts about who we are, and why we are who we are, continuing as an observant Jew (or as any G-d-fearing person for that matter) becomes nearly unfeasible. Chazal have taught that, in this context, the commandments of remembering Amalek and permanently destroying Amalek, which we will read on Shabbat and on Purim next week respectively, apply every day. As we interact with the world and go about our normal lives, we have an obligation to remember the danger of safek, and to remove it from our hearts.
While this teaching is very important, it is interesting to note that, when it comes to the actual nation of Amalek, its effect on us is often the opposite. On Shabbat, we will read a haftarah which tells the story of Shmuel HaNavi commanding King Shaul to wipe out every Amalekite. Shaul, a stand-up guy and a talmid chacham, does not exactly obey this command- he kills nearly every Amaleki, but spares King Agag and the best of the accursed cattle.
To quote Stanley from The Office: “Did I stutter?” One must wonder why King Shaul would spare these small but significant members of Amalek, directly disobeying G-d’s command. What part of “עתה לך והכיתה את עמלק והחרמתם את כל אשר לו ולא תחמול עליו” wasn’t clear to the first king of Israel?
I would like to present a possible explanation, based on Chazal’s עמלק/ספק teaching. Pathos would dictate that a command as extreme as annihilating an entire people would be difficult to stomach- collectively punishing a nation for its forebears iniquity is not a natural part of our usually merciful Jewish DNA, and it’s very possible that even the great King of Israel had doubts about what needed to be done.
What could Shaul do with these doubts? He could have easily sent word to or personally his teacher Shmuel to ask about the specifics of the command. He could have asked if he really needed to kill King Agag, or if keeping him a prisoner would have been sufficient. He could have double-checked to see if it was really necessary to waste all of the Amaleki sheep and cattle, animals whose only crime was being owned by our eternal enemy. He didn’t, and this is where Shaul HaMalech’s mistake was. Shaul had safek, but instead of trying to clarify his doubts, he “plowed ahead at full speed.”
This reaction to doubts- ignoring them, and continuing in one’s determined path- is oftentimes more dangerous than just pausing or stopping because of safek. This is most obviously seen in our haftarah: Shaul, after not exactly fulfilling Hashem’s directive, is confronted by his mentor Shmuel. Shaul responds:
אשר שמעתי בקול ה’ ואלך בדרך אשר שלחני ה’
I have listened to the voice of Hashem and I have followed in the path that he sent me (שמואל א טו:כ)
Because Shaul was confronted with doubts, and because he put them aside in the pursuit of his version of מחיית עמלק, he not only failed in his mission, but he also believed that he had succeeded, and that he had listened to Hashem. This ended up leading to Shaul’s downfall, as Chazal explain that if the king would have apologized at that point, Hashem may have forgiven him. Instead, since Shaul had allowed his sefekot to change his fulfillment of Hashem’s directive, and he had convinced himself that he was not in doubt, and that he had not sinned, he ended up losing the kingship, and sealing his and his son’s tragic fate.
I belive that it is clear from here that this is the dangerous power of Amalek. Very often, when we are faced with a moral difficulty, our natural, first reaction is doubt. This is healthy, as it gives us a chance to check-in and try to reestablish if we are actually correct or not. However, sometimes, we have the inclination not to think about it- to ignore the facts, and follow our gut instinct no matter how incorrect it actually is. Oftentimes, this is compounded by a feeling of self-righteousness, which leaves us in a dangerous position of being completely wrong but convinced we are 100% correct. This reaction is not always incorrect, but when it’s wrong, it’s very wrong. This is the danger of Amalek- it takes away our healthy safek.
Based on the well-known position that the Western world (beginning with Rome and Greece), as descendants of Edom, share features of their cousin Amalek (and could perhaps have their status in the End of Days), I believe it is obvious that the same sans safek that affected Shaul as he fought Amalek is also affecting many Jews as they live in the Western world. For the past few weeks, I’ve been taking advantage of the open discussion opportunistes presented by the internet and social networking to try to figure out what motivates many secular Jews in the United States to come out so strongly against the State of Israel. While I hope to eventually publish the results of this study separately, one recurring theme was the feeling that Israel has been committing war crimes against Palestinians, and “someone must hold them accountable.” As Jews, many felt an especially high level of responsibility to, well, hold their Israeli brethren responsible.
While I question how a twenty-something year old JStreet activist studying in Brandeis University and drinking the Kool Aid of the liberal media can possibly begin to understand the complicated and difficult moral nature of the Middle East, again this is a different topic of discussion. I believe that individuals like the secular and non-affiliated Jews I’ve been speaking to are suffering from the same exact sans-safek syndrome that Shaul suffered from in his time, albeit worse. When faced with the difficult moral challenges of civilian human shields, threats of annihilation (“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”), and questions of legitimacy to exist, it is very healthy for someone to feel safek. Unfortunately, when that someone is in a very liberal and Western atmosphere, there is a cultural pressure of forgiving and forgetting, ignoring past wrongdoings for the sake of peace, and accepting rewritten history without any questions asked. The result? Plowing ahead at full speed against the apartheid regime of Israel. Any doubts about this? Of course not, we are Jewish- we have a responsibility to hold the Jewish State accountable, even if it has done nothing wrong!
Unfortunately, the time of fulfilling the mitzva which we will read of on Purim day is not yet upon us, but as we will read on Shabbat, we already have an obligation to remember Amalek in every generation, every day. We have to remember the safek, and how proximity to this evil nation caused our first king to fail, and how it’s causing thousands of our brethren to be brainwashed into becoming self-hating Jews on a daily basis. Until we are given a chance to destroy the Amalek ideology for good, we must settle in the meantime for trying to save as many Jews as we can from becoming overly left-wing, self-hating robots. As much as Islamic extremism and anti-semitism around the world should be scaring us, the culture being developed by racist organizations like JStreet is the greatest danger to Judaism right now. We must remember! We cannot forget the importance of doubts, of confronting them and discovering the truth.
With Hashem’s help, we will merit a complete erasure of Amalek very very soon.