The Evil Within

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Amalek is thus not a people to be killed but a type of behavior to be rooted out. One who labels other people Amalekites runs the risk of himself behaving like an Amalekite; one who sees certain actions as Amalekite in nature is likely to avoid them--and ideally even to struggle for a world in which such actions are utterly obsolete.

Our text ends with a striking paradox. The commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek is followed by the injunction not to forget. How can it be that we must eliminate the very memory of evil and vigilantly remember it at one and the same time? Here the Torah tries, I think, to evoke and respond to a deep truth about human beings and our capacity for evil and violence: It is only by being profoundly aware of our capacity for evil that we are able to choose against it.

Self-awareness, even and perhaps especially of our darker sides, is the key to our freedom; to bring the monster into view is no longer to be enslaved by it. Thus, we are commanded to blot out the kind of evil inhumanity that Amalek represents. How? By remaining constantly aware--no matter how unpleasant--of the Amalekite possibilities inherent in each of us. Thus, the Hasidic master Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev tells us that we must all struggle with the "bad part called Amalek which lies hidden in our heart." Rather than kill other people, we are beckoned to struggle with the deepest ugliness than lies within us.

The Torah is, of course, not telling us that we are evil. It is only warning us that we are capable of evil acts--indeed, that all human beings are capable of evil acts. We remember the twin experiences of enslavement and liberation, and we seek to cultivate compassion; we remember the horrors of being attacked when we were most vulnerable, and we seek to control whatever parts of us might be capable of similar actions. In both cases, we seek to create a society and a world which embodies those values that Egypt and Amalek sought to eradicate--love, compassion, holiness, justice, and the infinite dignity and worth of every human being.

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Rabbi Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held, a noted lecturer and adult educator, is former Director of Education and Conservative Rabbinic Advisor at Harvard Hillel, and a graduate of the Wexner Fellowship program.