Rabbi David Walk
Sorry, Sylvester. We know that after playing Rocky Balboa for the umpteenth time you were the sentimental favorite for the statuette at this year's Oscars, but Mark Rylance is just a superior actor. I've become a fan of Mark Rylance. He was terrific as Rudolph Abel in Bridge of Spies, and my wife and I saw him in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night on Broadway. In that traditional (meaning no women) rendition of the Bard's comedy, he played Olivia and won a Tony for his considerable effort. But I'm most fascinated by his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) in the BBC's brilliant television version of the Hilary Mantel novel, Wolf Hall. I've been absorbed by the character of Cromwell since he was portrayed by Leo McKern in the marvelous movie version of A Man for All Seasons (1966), but recently I've become even more captivated than ever before, and I think that there is a lesson in this for Parshat Zachor.
Recently, my wife and I visited the Frick Collection at 70th Street opposite Central Park. It's an extraordinary little museum that those of us who march in the Israel Day Parade stride by every June while totally oblivious to the wonders inside. But we went in, and were rewarded by standing before the fireplace in the Living Hall and seeing on either side, in a sort of historic face off, the Hans Holbein portraits of Thomas More (1478-1534, sainted in 1935) and Thomas Cromwell. The two antagonists scowling at each other through eternity. In Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, More, Renascence scholar and author of Utopia, is the hero and Cromwell, the villain, most foul. That's how I've envisioned them for half a century. But Wolf Hall tells the story from the point of view of Cromwell. More is now seen as a fanatic and a torturer (much worse than water boarding); Cromwell a practical politician. My world is upside down. In this rendition, neither is a saint, but Cromwell is more reasonable and sympathetic. Can this sleight of hand be done with any story? Can we rewrite Batman with a heroic Joker, could we read Sherlock Holmes from the viewpoint of Professor James Moriarty, and how would Superman look through the eyes of Lex Luther? And, most importantly, can we see Amalek in a different light?
Maybe, we could look again at the verse at the end of B'shalach: Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim (Exodus 17:8). Perhaps they felt threatened by this tremendous horde passing through their territory. Can't we see their behavior as understandable, if not even reasonable? Well, it gets more complicated when we look at the version which appears at the end of Ki Tetze: You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, how when you were very tired and weary, they lay in wait for you on the road and eliminated everyone who was lagging behind. They had no fear of God (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). This comes across as pretty nasty. They attacked the weak and vulnerable at the rear of the march. Definitely, not chivalrous or courageous, but could it be seen as a desperate stratagem on the part of a vastly outnumbered indigenous population? One could, I believe, make such a claim if it weren't for the post script. The fact that they had no fear of God seems to be added on to let us know that something much more nefarious is at work.
Amalek does not believe in God's providence over what happens in the world. As Chazal point out, Amalek stands out in his ideology of "coincidence" ("mikreh"); "asher karekha ba-derekh" (Esther Rabba, parsha 8). Amalek sees miracles happening around the nation of Israel, but he explains all of them as natural phenomena. He sees the splitting of the sea, but insists that it is a coincidental instance of tides rising and falling. He believes that their victory over Egypt was coincidental, and cannot see any reason why that "good luck" should repeat itself. Hence he is not afraid, and goes out to war against Israel, as an act of war against the God of the Exodus as well.
And then there is the position of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993 the 'Rav'), who proposes an idea to explain why Maimonides rules that the commandment to destroy the seven Canaanite nations no longer applies because Sancheriv (ruler of the Assyrian Empire) dispersed the nations but fails to rule similarly regarding the commandment to destroy Amalek (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 5:4-5). Therefore the Rav quotes his father as explaining that, as regards the mitzvah to battle against it, Amalek is a status and not necessarily a nationality. Even after the dispersal and loss of national identity, someone who acts like Amalek, attempting to destroy the Jewish nation, acquires the status of Amalek and becomes a target of this commandment. R. Soloveitchik specifically applied this to the Nazis. Truth be told, we can find such individuals, groups and nations in every generation who are determined to eradicate the Jewish people. The reasons distributed in their propaganda rarely correspond to any reality. Often, these factions are so determined to destroy Jews that their behavior becomes counter-productive. As the Nazis did towards the end of the war, they sacrificed their own best interests to wipe out Judaism.
So, whenever we hear anti-Semitic tirades against us, I think that it is important to recheck our behavior and determine if any of the criticisms are legitimate. It is possible that we are encountering a situation where there are two valid points of view. Jewish history is sadly replete with examples embarrassing Jewish actions. However, if after sincere introspection we find our conduct reasonable then we must remember Amalek does rear his ugly head throughout time. Amalek, Haman, Hitler do exist and we must remain vigilant to their efforts. Batman may not always be an angel, but the Joker is always the Joker. So, is Amalek.