This week’s Torah portion seems to begin and end with “politically incorrect” recommendations for war, death and destruction. Starting with, “When you will go out to war” (Deuteronomy 21:10), the portion ends with, “You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven — you shall not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:19). It would appear that the Torah is advocating violence and revenge. And in some ways it is, but not against an external enemy.
In his commentary on this verse, Rashi teaches: “The Torah spoke only against the evil inclination.” The verse details a perpetual war, but it is a war against the drive to do evil that is within each of us. This may be part of the reason why the text says “when” you go out to war as opposed to “if” you go out.
We are always in battle with our own evil inclinations, and so the Torah tells us how to act when we are in this fight. In his book, “Amalek: The Enemy Within,” my friend and teacher Rabbi Elijah Schochet teaches that one way of viewing Amalek is as a symbol for each of us of our own evil inclination (yetzer hara). The biblical Amalek struck down the Hebrews from behind, attacking the weak; we must eradicate the inner part of our own psyches that wants to take advantage of those who are weaker than us. Ultimately, this is not a war against others, but a war against that part of us that is like Amalek, which preys upon the weak.
The ending of this week’s portion reminds us to not compromise with that aspect of ourselves, but to destroy it completely. But how? How can we fight that evil inclination within ourselves when it is so crafty? How can we eradicate its memory?
As always, the Torah provides the answer within the question. In between the opening and closing verses of this portion are a group of seemingly unrelated laws regarding marriage, the education of children, the return of lost property, prohibition of slander, gifts to the poor and other laws that discuss how to interact with our family and community. These laws are the recipe for defeating the Amalek within us, the strategies for winning this fight not with an external enemy, but with the enemy that is inside us, preventing us from being everything that we can be.
Each law throughout the portion helps us defeat the darkness within ourselves, and, as a result, within the world. The laws are simple to enact and have clear purposes: build a parapet around your roof to prevent a friend from falling; educate your children so they learn boundaries, wisdom and aren’t gluttonous; take care of the lost articles of your brother until he can get them; observe the holiness of marriage and the laws surrounding it. These and the other laws described are all easy to do, and they create results that are as global as they are personal.
When we prepare our balconies so that they are safe for our neighbors (Deuteronomy 22:8), we show a concern and consideration for others that becomes reflected in our entire community. Similarly, when we hold lost items for our brothers until they retrieve them (Deuteronomy 22:2) or when we have clear laws regarding not charging another Jew interest on any monetary loans (Deuteronomy 23:20), we are not only going against the nature of our evil inclination, but raising up all of those around us. Gossip is so easy to fall into, and by prohibiting slander (Deuteronomy 22:14) we ensure that our society maintains a high standard of ethics. And what is more important than the proper education of our children? Children not only learn with their intellect, but also by watching the examples of their parents. If each of us recognized that everything we do is observed and emulated by our children, would we be so callous about our actions? Or would we try to live by higher standards, if only for our children’s sake? These and the other laws in our Torah portion are the great tools to fight the yetzer hara inside each of us.
Torah gives us the tools, now we just have to use them in this “war.” As we approach the High Holy Days, may we all be blessed to be honest about the Amalek within, and have the courage and fortitude to triumph over it.