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January 29, 2015 12:46 pm

Confronting Evil

avatar by Jonathan Sacks

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Moses pleading with the Israelites. Photo: Wiki Commons.

After 9/11, when the horror and trauma had subsided, Americans found themselves asking what had happened and why. Was it a disaster? A tragedy? A crime? An act of war? It did not seem to fit the pre-existing paradigms. And why had it happened? The question most often asked about Al Qaeda was, “Why do they hate us?”

In the wake of those events an American thinker Lee Harris wrote two books, Civilization and its Enemies and The Suicide of Reason that were among the most thought-provoking responses of the decade. The reason for the questions and the failure to find answers, said Harris, was that we in the West had forgotten the concept of an enemy. Liberal democratic politics and market economics create a certain kind of society, a specific way of thinking and a characteristic type of personality. At their heart is the concept of the rational actor, the person who judges acts by their consequences and chooses the maximal option. He or she believes that for every problem there is a solution, for every conflict a resolution. The way to achieve it is to sit down, negotiate, and do on balance what is best for all.

In such a world there are no enemies, merely conflicts of interest. An enemy, says Harris, is simply “a friend we haven’t done enough for yet.” In the real world, however, not everyone is a liberal democrat. An enemy is “someone who is willing to die in order to kill you. And while it is true that the enemy always hates us for a reason, it is his reason, not ours.” He sees a different world from ours, and in that world we are the enemy. Why do they hate us? Answers Harris: “They hate us because we are their enemy.”

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Harris’s specifics, the general point is true and profound. We can become mind-blind, thinking that the way we – our society, our culture, our civilization – see things is the only way, or at least that it is the way everyone would choose if given the chance. Only a complete failure to understand the history of ideas can explain this error, and it is a dangerous one. When Montezuma, ruler of the Aztecs, met Cortes, leader of the Spanish expedition in 1520, he assumed that he was meeting a civilized man from a civilized nation. That mistake cost him his life and within a year there was no Aztec civilization any more. Not everyone sees the world the way we do, and, as Richard Weaver once said: “The trouble with humanity is that it forgets to read the minutes of the last meeting.”

This explains the significance of the unusual command at the end of this week’s parsha. The Israelites had escaped the seemingly inexorable danger of the chariots of the Egyptian army, the military high-tech of its day. Miraculously the sea divided, the Israelites crossed, the Egyptians, their chariot wheels caught in the mud, were unable either to advance or retreat and were caught by the returning tide.

The Israelites sang a song and finally seemed to be free, when something untoward and unexpected happened. They were attacked by a new enemy, the Amalekites, a nomadic group living in the desert. Moses instructed Joshua to lead the people in battle. They fought and won. But the Torah makes it clear that this was no ordinary battle:

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.’ Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner.  He said, ‘The hand is on the Lord’s throne. The Lord will be at war with Amalek for all generations.’ (Ex. 17: 14-16)

This is a very strange statement, and it stands in marked contrast to the way the Torah speaks about the Egyptians. The Amalekites attacked Israel during the lifetime of Moses just once. The Egyptians oppressed the Israelites over an extended period, oppressing and enslaving them and starting a slow genocide by killing every male Israelite child. The whole thrust of the narrative would suggest that if any nation would become the symbol of evil, it would be Egypt.

But the opposite turns out to be true. In Deuteronomy the Torah states, “Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land” (Deut. 23: 8). Shortly thereafter, Moses repeats the command about the Amalekites, adding a significant detail:

Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God … You shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25: 17-19)

We are commanded not to hate Egypt, but never to forget Amalek. Why the difference? The simplest answer is to recall the rabbis’ statement in The Ethics of the Fathers: “If love depends on a specific cause, when the cause ends, so does the love. If love does not depend on a specific cause, then it never ends.” The same applies to hate. When hate depends on a specific cause, it ends once the cause disappears. Causeless, baseless hate lasts forever.

The Egyptians oppressed the Israelites because, in Pharaoh’s words, “The Israelites are becoming too numerous and strong for us” (Ex. 1: 9). Their hate, in other words, came from fear. It was not irrational. The Egyptians had been attacked and conquered before by a foreign group known as the Hyksos, and the memory of that period was still acute and painful. The Amalekites, however, were not being threatened by the Israelites. They attacked a people who were “weary and worn out,” specifically those who were “lagging behind.” In short: the Egyptians feared the Israelites because they were strong. The Amalekites attacked the Israelites because they were weak.

In today’s terminology, the Egyptians were rational actors, the Amalekites were not. With rational actors there can be negotiated peace. People engaged in conflict eventually realise that they are not only destroying their enemies: they are destroying themselves. That is what Pharaoh’s advisers said to him after seven plagues: “Do you not yet realise that Egypt is ruined?” (Ex. 10: 7). There comes a point at which rational actors understand that the pursuit of self-interest has become self-destructive, and they learn to co-operate.

It is not so, however, with non-rational actors. Emil Fackenheim, one of the great post-Holocaust theologians, noted that towards the end of the Second World War the Germans diverted trains carrying supplies to their own army, in order to transport Jews to the extermination camps. So driven were they by hate that they were prepared to put their own victory at risk in order to carry out the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe. This was, he said, evil for evil’s sake.

The Amalekites function in Jewish memory as “the enemy” in Lee Harris’s sense. Jewish law, however, specifies two completely different forms of action in relation to the Amalekites. First is the physical command to wage war against them. That is what Samuel told Saul to do, a command he failed fully to fulfil. Does this command still apply today?

The unequivocal answer given by Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch is No. Maimonides ruled that the command to destroy the Amalekites only applied if they refused to make peace and accept the seven Noahide laws. He further stated that the command was no longer applicable since Sennacherib, the Assyrian, had transported and resettled the nations he conquered so that it was no longer possible to identify the ethnicity of any of the original nations against whom the Israelites were commanded to fight. He also said, in The Guide for the Perplexed, that the command only applied to people of specific biological descent. It is not to be applied in general to enemies or haters of the Jewish people. So the command to wage war against the Amalekites no longer applies.

However, there is a quite different command, to “remember” and “not forget” Amalek, which we fulfil annually by the reading the passage about the Amalekites command as it appears in Deuteronomy on the Shabbat before Purim, Shabbat Zakhor (the connection with Purim is that Haman the “Agagite” is assumed to be a descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites). Here Amalek has become a symbol rather than a reality.

By dividing the response in this way, Judaism marks a clear distinction between an ancient enemy who no longer exists, and the evil that enemy embodied, which can break out again at any time in any place. It is easy at times of peace to forget the evil that lies just beneath the surface of the human heart. Never was this truer than in the past three centuries. The birth of Enlightenment, toleration, emancipation, liberalism and human rights persuaded many, Jews among them, that collective evil was as extinct as the Amalekites. Evil was then, not now. That age eventually begat nationalism, fascism, communism, two World Wars, some of the brutal tyrannies ever known, and the worst crime of man against man.

Today, the great danger is terror. Here the words of Princeton political philosopher Michael Walzer are particularly apt:

Wherever we see terrorism, we should look for tyranny and oppression … The terrorists aim to rule, and murder is their method. They have their own internal police, death squads, disappearances. They begin by killing or intimidating those comrades who stand in their way, and they proceed to do the same, if they can, among the people they claim to represent. If terrorists are successful, they rule tyrannically, and their people bear, without consent, the costs of the terrorists’ rule.

Evil never dies, and like liberty it demands constant vigilance. We are commanded to remember, not for the sake of the past but for the sake of the future, and not for revenge but the opposite: a world free of revenge and other forms of violence.

Lee Harris began Civilization and its Enemies with the words, “The subject of this book is forgetfulness,” and ends with a question: “Can the West overcome the forgetfulness that is the nemesis of every successful civilization?” That is why are commanded to remember and never forget Amalek, not because the historic people still exists, but because a society of rational actors can sometimes believe that the world is full of rational actors with whom one can negotiate peace. It is not always so.

Rarely was a biblical message so relevant to the future of the West and of freedom itself. Peace is possible, implies Moses, even with an Egypt that enslaved and tried to destroy us. But peace is not possible with those who attack people they see as weak and who deny their own people the freedom for which they claim to be fighting. Freedom depends on our ability to remember and whenever necessary confront “the eternal gang of ruthless men,” the face of Amalek throughout history.

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  • Leonard Mansky

    Rabbi Sack’s column primarily analyzes the evildoer and categorizes the response accordingly and rationally. However it fails to deal with an all-too-common reaction to evildoers today based on a deficiency in the reaction of their victims and would-be victims. Such reaction, seemingly rational, is ultimately irrational and self-defeating because it fails to allow for the failure that conscience engenders when dealing with an enemy that lacks a conscience.

    This phenomenon was brilliantly analyzed by Norman Doidge in his April 15, 2002 Weekly Standard article, “Evil’s Advantage Over Conscience — Why the West gives Yasser Arafat endless second chances.” When the Stockholm Syndrome impacts the victim he will not blot out the name of Amalek but instead give him self-defeating additional chances.

    “It is as though there were an unwritten psychological law that evil at its most shameless–the most barbaric murder of children and civilians, the most outrageous claims and lies–is somehow, in the minute before midnight, to be treated as an exception worthy of reprieve.”

    Dr. Doidge uses as his model not Amaleki But Shakespeare’s Richard lll.

    “The principal characters are fully aware of Richard’s undeniable evil, yet they let him have his way despite themselves. Richard is the most systematically evil character in all of Shakespeare’s plays. ‘I can smile, and murder while I smile,’ he says, swearing that he will outdo all the villains of history ‘and set the murderous Machiavel to school.’

    “The most important thing Richard knows is that while conscience allows us to understand ordinary crimes, it actually blinds us before the most extraordinary ones. —

    “But conscience, designed to ferret out evil within, can also actually narrow our awareness of evil. This happens, according to Freud, because the person with a conscience learns to repress automatically his own most destructive inclinations so as not to act on them. He becomes ignorant, for example, of the thrill of evil that a sadist like Richard III feels when he plays God and exercises the freedom to kill whomever he pleases. But the cost of repressing one’s most destructive feelings is an inability to understand, without significant effort, those who give these feelings free rein.”

    The evildoer, unlike his victim, feels no guilt so negotiating with him is futile.

    “Conscience, when it is functioning well–automatically and without the intervention of reason, so that we do the right thing without thinking–is not simply rational. It is a force, a blunt instrument before which the conscientious person is guilty until proven innocent. As the preventive agency in the mind, conscience blocks first, thinks later. Men like Arafat and Richard know this. That is why both men constantly charge others with crimes–to paralyze them. Both know it doesn’t matter whether the charges are false. —

    “It is this force inside the psyche of his enemies that the person without a conscience can so effectively enlist as a fifth column. Having himself no such inner force always second-guessing him, he can see it clearly in others–far more clearly than do those who are in its thrall and take each of its charges seriously. Arafat gets endless second chances because the conscience of the West is doing what a conscience does: second-guessing the West’s own actions. That is why Arafat is always playing upon the conscience of the West, especially by his endless recourse to ‘international law’ and invocation of ‘human rights,’ an utterly brazen ploy coming from a terrorist. —

    “It is interesting that the person who finally defeats Richard III in Shakespeare’s play, Richmond, is the one key character who never talks to Richard or gives him a hearing, and thus never comes under his spell. To talk to Arafat, which is what all pundits say must be done to bring peace to the Middle East, is precisely the wrong move, for there is no dialogue with a man without a conscience.”

  • DACON9


  • · Top Commenter · Rabbi at Congregation Beth El, Edison NJ


    Bernhard Rosenberg What is evil, and how does one comprehend its place in our lives? In Judaism, the question of evil and suffering is expressed in the following statement: “Tzadik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo,” a righteous person, and bad comes to him, a wicked person and good comes to him. Why do righteous people suffer and experience hardship, while the “wicked” seemingly do not experience pain and suffering? After the Shoah one would have expected Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, to analyze and lecture on this unique tragedy and period of Jewish suffering. Although the Rav refers to the Shoah, he does not provide his students with a comprehensive explanation for this horrific period. To explain the Rav’s understanding of the evil of the Holocaust one must read his views on evil and suffering throughout Jewish histor… See More

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    Bernhard Rosenberg · Top Commenter · Rabbi at Congregation Beth El, Edison NJ

    Bernhard Rosenberg Man is not born good. He must become good – by learning that there is another beside him and a Creator above him. Evil and unwarranted hatred are a reality that exists in our world. The human being has an infinite capacity for evil that, left unchecked, can destroy the world. The Torah itself tells us that the “impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21). Man is not born good. He has to become good – by forging his character, by bending his baser instincts, by learning that there is another beside him and an Other above him. The Holocaust shows what can become of human beings when they permit the beast within them to control them. It teaches us that we must be alert to the existence of evil, both in others and in our own selves. Once we are aware of its reality, we can work to uproot it. The mitzvot of the Torah are designed to help the spiritual qualities within us dominate the beast within. Further, we learn from this tragedy that to be silent in the face of evil is to acquiesce in it, encourage it, and help it grow strong. History teaches us that evil triumphs when good people remain silent. But when good people rise up against evil, evil will ultimately perish and the good will prevail. RABBI DR. BERNHARD Bernhard Rosenberg

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  • Bernhard Rosenberg · Top Commenter · Rabbi at Congregation Beth El, Edison NJ

    A great time to remember is Passover. Just insert your family story.

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