By Rabbi Assaf Harnoy
Post-Graduate Beit Midrash for Torah and Leadership, Jerusalem
Eradicating Amalek on the Bus
A few years ago, I rode a bus from Tzefat to Jerusalem. At the beginning of the trip I took a small Gemarra out of my pocket, the tractate of Nedarim, hoping to study a bit before I was caught up in sleep. A few minutes later, a Chassid got on the bus and sat down next to me. He saw that I had a copy of Nedarim, and he said to me that whoever studied the commentary of the RAN on this tractate would thereby observe the mitzva of eradicating Amalek.
Of course I took the bait immediately and asked him why this was so. He replied, "Amalek twists the mind, and the RAN on Nedarim straightens it out again."
Having Mercy on Agag while being Cruel to all the Infants
In the Haftarah of this week's Torah portion we are taught about the great mistake of King Shaul who did not kill Agag, the King of Amalek, and all the sheep in the war.
The simple way to understand this is that Shaul and his people refrained from killing Agag and the sheep out of a feeling of mercy: "And Shaul and the nation had pity on Agag and on the best of the sheep" [Shmuel I 15:9]. However, this is not easy to accept – is it reasonable that Shaul and the nation ruthlessly killed the entire nation of Amalek, including women and young babies, but had pity and saved the king and the sheep?
Mercy as a Test of the Service of G-d
We can perhaps understand why the nation had pity on Agag in view of the reason that Shaul gave for the fact that the nation took pity on the sheep of the Amalek people: "And the nation took from the booty of sheep and cattle... to sacrifice to G-d at Gilgal" [15:21].
The reason for leaving the sheep was not to give a personal profit to any of the people. Rather, the people had a real desire to set aside the choice animals in order to sacrifice them to G-d. The people thought that to keep the sheep and sacrifice it would be the best way to worship G-d. In a similar way, we can suggest that Agag was spared as a way to worship G-d.
It is well known that the act of killing the leader of the enemy in a war can have a powerful effect on the morale of the soldiers and their feeling of victory. Perhaps Shaul let Agag live in order to observe the command to kill him in public, with an appropriate ceremony, on the day that Shmuel the Prophet would join them all for a festive meal of thanksgiving celebrating the great victory. Shaul preferred to wait and kill Agag in public, in front of all the people, instead of as a minor incident when Agag would have the "honor" of falling in battle.
Just as with the sheep, this was not a matter of personal profit but rather a true intention of worshipping G-d. However, this is precisely the error which led to the downfall of Shaul's dynasty. The Kingdom of Yisrael will not be established through worshipping G-d through human ideas instead of listening to His direct command.
Eradicating Amalek in our Generation
The war against Amalek does not consist of sharpening our weapons but rather is a struggle of viewpoints in essence and in principle. The "Amalekite" approach does not recognize G-d, and it therefore denies the existence of Divine commands which we are obligated to observe.
Such an outlook might permeate its way into our minds, and lead us to invent our own ideas about how to serve G-d, at times forgetting what G-d commanded us to do. Like Shaul, we might also develop a strong desire to perform exalted acts as part of our worship of G-d. But we must always check if they correspond to what G-d really commanded us to do.
Shmuel's reaction, "Does G-d want sacrifices or does He prefer His voice to be heard?" [15:22], continues to reverberate in our generation loud and clear. It insists that we must focus on fulfilling the will and the commands of the Holy One, Blessed be He, as the central message of our war on Amalek. Specifically in our generation, which places such a great emphasis on personal experience and making a connection through serving G-d, we must take care to observe the commands precisely as they were given to us.
It is possible to develop many attractive ideas for worshipping G-d, but what is really important and primary is to listen to what G-d wants from us and not to act the way that we would like to. We will eradicate Amalek if we align our mind to correspond to the precise will of G-d and we do not allow the approach of Amalek to distort out thoughts.