Ki Teitzei: The Ethics of War
Every Shavuot, we read from Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a holy text that includes among other readings the first and last lines of every Torah portion. The concept is similar to “cliff notes”, and that by reviewing these first and last teachings we can get remind ourselves of the intent of the entire Torah portion of the week.
This week’s reading of Ki Teitzei (Deut. 21:10-25:19) is a perfect example of the wisdom of this concept. The Torah portion is comprised of a recapitulation of ethical behavior standards for the Jewish people including how to handle inheritances, found property, improper mixtures and sexual offenses, vows, usury, the treatment of domestic animals and more. But the beginning and ending paragraphs deal with the essence and some of the most difficult ethical choices for individuals: the ethics around conflict and war.
The portion begins with commandments about how to act when we go to war. Specifically how to act with our enemies, and the demand for respect of the captives. It is all too easy to enter a conflict with unbridled passion, and then inflict unnecessary and unethical harm upon our former enemies. The Torah teaches that we must treat them with respect, and strive for a lasting peace with them. The example of a beautiful woman who is a captive is used, and the Torah is clear about giving her time to mourn for her lost family. If there is a desire to marry her, she is to be treated with the greatest of respect…and she is never to be treated as a slave, but as a wife and respected member of the household.
These are compassionate and ethical words that are often difficult to do for soldiers who were first in the heat of battle and then the heat of passion, but they are necessary to maintain a righteous society. And if we were to read only the first few sentences we might think that the Torah is only concerned with protecting the rights of all parties involved in conflict.
But God’s Torah is infinitely more wise and understanding about the nature of mankind, and that there are times for a different understanding of war.
This portion on ethical standards ends with the statement that we are to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven”, another repetition of God’s early statement that God will always blot out Amalek’s memory and “the Lord will always be at war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Ex. 17:14-15). How can a portion about ethical behavior end with a statement that we should destroy Amalek, and who is Amalek that he deserves annihilation?
The first thing to recognize is that the Torah does not say to be at war with the “descendants of Amalek”, a ruler of over 3500 years ago, but with Amalek. This teaches us that it is not a war against a man per se, but against the archetype of Amalek and all he represents. (For a greater understanding of Amalek, I strongly encourage reading “Amalek, the Enemy Within” by Rabbi Elijah Schochet.) To understand this dictate of war and its relationship to ethical behavior we must understand the archetype based on the man.
Amalek was the ruler of an ancient tribe that attacked the Hebrews during their journey to the promised land. The Amalekites attacked the Hebrews from behind: where the young, old, sick, and those unable to defend themselves were. Amalek is the archetype of the ultimate “perpetrator” who consciously attacked the weak rather than have open conflict with those who can fight back.
God teaches us here to have no mercy upon these types of perpetrators, but to utterly destroy them. As Rabbi Schochet teaches so beautifully, this means that we are not to be kind with our inner perpetrator, but to eradicate it. The Amalek within could manifest as the addiction that encourages the alcoholic to “just have one little drink”, or the sex addict to have an affair because “after all, your spouse will never know”. We are not to negotiate with our yetzer hara (“evil inclination”), but to destroy it completely. The Torah recognizes that negotiating with this desire (just having one drink) all too easily leads to behavior that is unethical and severely detrimental. And so, we must always completely destroy that Amalek within and not negotiate with our own evil inclinations.
But since the Torah does not specifically say the Amalek within, how else is ethical behavior to be manifest in war?
The Torah recognizes that sadly, there are people and causes that are truly evil in their actions. Maybe they didn’t start out that way, but there are organizations and people that have morphed into an evil that seeks to destroy the weakest in society, and to dominate others without respect for individual rights to be part of a minority.
We have seen this manifestation of Amalek throughout history in the form of Haman (who is said to be a physical descendant of Amalek), the Spanish Inquisition, and the Nazis among others. The Torah is clear how we are to deal with these perpetrators: we are to utterly destroy them without mercy. We are never to rejoice in this duty, God forbid, and should never be happy to see them destroyed; but as Jews we have an ethical obligation to blot out that type of evil from under heaven. By rationalizing that Haman/the Nazis/etc. were just misguided, we leave the opening to accept evil (and possibly even embrace it) rather than combat it.
This is a painful and difficult concept especially for all of us who grew up in the 60s/70s and truly believe in our hearts that everyone can be redeemed if we just love them enough. We (and I include myself in this category) want to believe that any evil can be transformed into good if we just can be compassionate, understanding, and loving enough. But the Torah is clear: there are evils (those that prey upon the weak) that cannot be redeemed and must be entirely eradicated. This is a primary Torah teaching for ethical behavior in conflict. Our job is to always be at war with the evil Amalek within, and to be equally passionate in combatting the Amalek in the world.
As Jews, the foundation of our ethical behavior is that we must always fight darkness by shining the light of God’s presence. We are to be “a light unto the nations” (Is. 42:6), and to eliminate the darkness of Amalek from generation to generation.
One of the most powerful ways to fight this war against evil within and without is to gather together as a community in prayer. This is especially true at the big holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. To truly fight the darkness of Amalek in the world, we must all be present at High Holiday services. It is this imperative that leads Temple Ner Simcha to never have a mandatory charge for High Holiday tickets (despite the financial challenges that practice creates): we must all be able to gather together in prayer at these times to bring more light, joy, and peace into the world.
Especially in these times of fear, war, rage, and darkness in the world; it is more important this year that everyone participates in the High Holiday services than any prior year in my personal memory. If you have not yet registered to attend our Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services at the Canyon Club, please register online right now at nersimcha.org/high-holidays. We don’t want to reject anyone because of safe capacity, but there are only a limited number of tickets left. If you are receiving this commentary and are outside the Southern California area, we will be streaming our services only to those outside the area, but you need to register online at nersimcha.org/high-holidays-out-of-southern-california-registration.
This Torah reading reminds us of the requirement of ethical behavior at all times, the spiritual necessity to combat the evil of Amalek, and the importance to do this together as a spiritual community.
May we all always fight the Amalek within and without through ethical behavior as guided by the Torah; and may we see the triumph of light, joy, good health, and peace in our time.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
August 20th, 2021
12th of Elul, 5781