Ki Teitzei - Amalek, Yibum, and the Vulnerable
This parsha contains one of the most troubling mitzvot in the entire Torah: Mechiyat Amalek – the command to erase the memory of Amalek from the face of the earth. So I don’t know about you, but I’ve wondered what this verse, what this mitzvah is supposed to mean for us today?
It seems so brutal and violent. How could the same Torah that teaches that humanity is created in the Divine image, also command us to wipe out an entire nation? And, furthermore, today, when there is no nation of Amalek to speak of, how are we even supposed to relate to this mitzvah? Do we just say that it’s a remnant of a distant past? An archaic mitzvah that holds no relevance anymore? Or, is there something fundamental about this mitzvah that still holds meaning and importance for us, even today?
In order to find answers to these difficult questions, I think we need to contend with the Biblical text itself. So towards the end of Deuteronomy chapter 25, in the Maftir that I read, Moshe tells the Israelites:
זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק
Remember what Amalek did to you
בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם
when you were on your way out of Egypt.
אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ
They came upon you suddenly,
וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כָּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחַרֶ֔יךָ
and they attacked you from behind, targeting the weak stragglers at the rear.
Now, notice how Moshe describes what happened here. He doesn’t just say, “remember that wicked nation that attacked you.” No. He’s very specific about the nature of Amalek’s attack: It was a surprise. They didn’t come out and declare war – they ambushed you from behind! Targeting the weakest members of the nation, who could barely keep up with the pack.
And it wasn’t just these few people who were weak. Moshe continues:
וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ
And all of you – the entire nation – was exhausted, and weary.
Why would that be? How could everybody be exhausted? Well, think about where the nation was at this point. They were just a few days out from the Exodus and the splitting of the sea, and had just survived not one but two national crises: first they ran out of water; and then, they had no food. Now they were walking through the desert, without a map or a canteen, with no idea of what would happen next. And this moment was precisely when Amalek attacked, a time when the entire nation was physically and emotionally drained.
And after Moshe finishes retelling these events, he ends with the commandment:
תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם
Erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens
So that’s the mitzvah of mechiyat Amalek, the command to erase their memory. And, as evil as their actions seem – attacking the vulnerable, coming from behind – it still leaves us with a lot to grapple with. Wipe them off the face of the earth?! Leave no remnant of their legacy?! For all time?
I mean, come on?! Other nations also did terrible things to the Israelites. The Egyptians enslaved them for hundreds of years, they even killed newborn babies, but there isn’t an everlasting commandment to blot out their name. What makes Amalek different? How can we make sense of this troubling – and very specific – command?
Well, I think, as usual, there’s more to these verses here than meets the eye. Because if we look at the larger context surrounding this mitzvah, there just so happens to be another mitzvah about a legacy being erased, and it even uses the same unusual word – machah – to speak about that erasure. And, wouldn’t you know it, this other mitzvah appears just a few verses before the mitzvah of erasing Amalek.
So, also in our Parashah, I’m talking about the mitzvah of Yibum – levirate marriage. It’s a mitzvah that most of us know little about – it isn’t even practiced today as it was in Biblical times. But this mitzvah seems to have surprising similarities to the mitzvah of erasing Amalek’s name.
Let’s take a look at it:
If there are two brothers and one of them dies and he doesn’t leave behind a son. The wife of the deceased shall not marry outside the family. Rather, the man’s living brother must marry her. And the son born to this couple will uphold the name of the deceased brother.
The Torah is describing a tragic situation. One brother has died with no heirs, and he runs the risk of losing his legacy forever. The mitzvah of Yibum offers a solution: The living brother is asked to step in and take responsibility for his brother’s family. He marries his brother’s widow, and together with her, bears a child that will perpetuate his deceased brother’s name. Biologically, this child is his – but spiritually, the child belongs to his brother and bears his legacy. This is all for the single purpose:
וְלֹֽא־יִמָּחֶ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל
In this way, the brother’s name will not be erased from his people.
Look at those last words – לֹֽא־יִמָּחֶ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ – don’t erase his name, protect his legacy. Isn’t it oddly similar to what Moshe says about Amalek? תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם – erase Amalek’s memory from the face of the earth, destroy their legacy.
Okay. So these two mitzvot are right next to each other, and they seem to be speaking about similar ideas, using the same unusual language of macha – to erase a legacy. It really does seem like they may be somehow connected to one another. But one word here and there isn’t really enough to draw any conclusions from, is it?
Well, if we think a bit more about these two mitzvot, maybe they share even more in common. Because remember what Moshe emphasizes about Amalek – what was so particularly cruel about their actions: Amalek used Israel’s vulnerability against them, as a point of attack.
Now, does that relate to Yibum in any way? Let’s consider the situation Yibum is coming to address. There’s a death in the family that leaves people in a vulnerable position. First, there’s the widow of the deceased brother. All of a sudden, she finds herself on her own with no husband or heir to the family name. Likely she has no job and no way to provide for herself. And with Yibum, God commands the living brother, “take care of this vulnerable woman. Provide her with a home and a future.”
Now her vulnerability may be debatable, certainly through our twenty-first century, cultural lenses. But there’s someone even more vulnerable here – the deceased brother himself. He is in the most vulnerable situation possible. He’s completely incapable of doing anything for himself anymore. He’s dead. Whatever remains of his legacy is left entirely in the hands of others. And here the Torah commands: “commit yourself to your brother. Take responsibility for his legacy, support him in his most vulnerable moment.”
Both of these mitzvot – Yibum and Mechiyat Amalek – are talking about people in a vulnerable situation. Amalek attacked vulnerable people – and Yibum is all about protecting vulnerable people. And they’re both discussing a legacy being erased – or potentially erased – and they both use the same word – machah, erasing.
But what are we supposed to make of these connections? The mitzvot themselves are worlds apart from each other! One is about a family struggling to keep its legacy intact. The other is about a wanton nation that once upon a time attacked the Israelites. Despite their similarities, it’s really not so clear what these mitzvot have to do with one another!
But stay with me, we’re not finished yet. Because there’s one more piece to this puzzle we have not explored. You see, these verses in Devarim are Moshe’s retelling of the story of Amalek. But the story itself, when Amalek actually attacked the Israelites, took place all the way back in the Book of Shemot. I think we need to go back to that original story in order to understand the mitzvah of Mechiyat Amalek and what it has to do with Yibum.
Once we see how these mitzvot are linked in a more essential way, I believe we’ll also be able to address those looming questions we started with: What is Mechiyat Amalek really about, and how are we supposed to relate to it today?
So, let’s turn now to Shemot chapter 17: As we said earlier, the Israelites had just emerged from the splitting of the sea and were beginning their journey through the wilderness. And all of a sudden, Amalek attacks. And here we get a lot more details about the battle than we did in Devarim.
First, Moshe turns to Joshua to lay out the strategy. He says: “Joshua, you lead the forces here on the ground, and I’m going to go up the mountain together with Aaron and Chur.” And while Israel and Amalek’s armies were facing off on the battlefield, the real battle was taking place on the mountain:
וְהָיָ֗ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרִ֥ים מֹשֶׁ֛ה יָד֖וֹ
Whenever Moshe lifted his
hands וְגָבַ֣ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
the Israelites were able to overcome Amalek in battle but when he would let his hands down, Amalek would prevail.
For some unexplained reason, Moshe’s raised hands determined Israel’s success on the battlefield. But then things take a turn for the worse. As the battle carries on – וִידֵ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ כְּבֵדִ֔ים – Moshe’s hands became heavy, and he can’t hold them up anymore. And this is where Aaron and Chur come in. They bring a stone for Moshe to sit on, and thenוְאַהֲרֹ֨ן וְח֜וּר תָּֽמְכ֣וּ בְיָדָ֗יו מִזֶּ֤ה אֶחָד֙ וּמִזֶּ֣ה אֶחָ֔ד – they stand on either side of Moshe, supporting his hands and holding them up in the air – in this way, Moshe’s hands remained steadfast until sunset, allowing Joshua and the Israelites to defeat Amalek.
So we have two stories about the battle with Amalek: one here in Shemot, and the other in the Book of Devarim. In Devarim, Moshe said that Amalek attacked the weak and vulnerable – the הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים – the stragglers; the nation who was – עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ – they were weary and exhausted. And here in Exodus, we see that it wasn’t just the Israelites who were tired and weary: Moshe also grew tired and weak, וִידֵ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ כְּבֵדִ֔ים – his hands became so heavy that he didn’t have the strength to hold them up anymore. And when that happened, Aaron and Chur came to his aid, literally holding his hands up for him.
Now who are Aaron and Chur? Aaron, as we know, is Moshe’s brother. But who is Chur? Well, he shows up only a few times throughout the entire Torah, but the Rabbis say that Chur is none other than the son of Miryam… the sister of Moshe and Aaron. Chur is family, Moshe’s nephew.
So look at what’s going on here. Down on the battlefield, Amalek is preying on Israel’s vulnerability. It’s an act that stands in opposition to everything that the mitzvah of Yibum is about, protecting the vulnerable and taking care of them. But up on top of the mountain, there was a secret weapon being wielded. It was the yibum-like act of brothers helping brothers, Aaron and Chur were supporting Moshe when he had no strength left of his own.
It’s the exact same ethic that stands behind the mitzvah of Yibum. When your brother is at his most vulnerable, you come to his aid and take responsibility for him.
I think this scene in Shemot – the actual victory over Amalek – is showing us the deeper connections between the mitzvot of Yibum and of Mechiyat Amalek, and it’s the reason Moshe teaches these mitzvot, side by side.
These two mitzvot are the antithesis of one another. They represent two opposite models of how to relate to vulnerability. Amalek saw weakness as a target to attack, and the result is God’s command to – תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם – erase their memory from the face of the earth. Yibum is about seeing vulnerability and coming to its aid. The result is – לֹֽא־יִמָּחֶ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל – your brother’s name will not be erased, his legacy will be preserved. And it was this power, of brothers caring for their brother in his time of need, Aaron and Chur, supporting Moshe when he was weak and vulnerable, that ultimately overpowered the attack of Amalek’s army.
Okay, so I know that was long but we needed to see the larger picture here because it reframes the battle against Amalek and the meaning of the mitzvah to erase their memory. Mechiyat Amalek isn’t about violence and revenge. The physical war is just a piece of something much bigger. It’s a moral imperative, that extends way beyond the battlefield.
This is even apparent in the way Moshe issues the command. He says – when God gives you respite from all of your enemies, when there’s no-one left to fight! Then תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם – that’s when you must erase the memory of Amalek from the world. Not the people of Amalek, but zeycher Amalek. Erase their legacy, erase what they stand for. Erase the cruel mentality that seeks to trample on the vulnerable, that views weakness as something to take advantage of and attack.
By presenting the story of Amalek together with the mitzvah of Yibum, the Torah shows a radically different paradigm of how to relate to vulnerability. When we see someone who is weak, who is in need, it’s our job to step in and take responsibility – to support them and lift them up, to help them accomplish what they cannot do on their own. This is the lasting meaning of the mitzvah to erase Amalek’s memory.
Yeshua reinforces the imperative of this mitzvah by making it clear that we are to join him in caring for our most vulnerable neighbors. In Matthew 25, Yeshua gives what has become known as the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. He calls the Sheep blessed because, “What you [the Sheep] did for the least of these, my brothers, you did for me.”
Here we find Yeshua identifying with those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, physically and emotionally ill, as well as those who are incarcerated, each group representing explicit needs, vulnerabilities. And the Sheep are blessed because they went out of their way to help them, to feed them, to welcome them, to clothe them, to heal them, and to visit them.
The Psalms, Proverbs, and Prophets make a strong and continual case for caring for the vulnerable.
Yeshua and his Talmidim also spoke of the necessity for us to care for the vulnerable. In fact, this sentiment, this command, is spoken of all over Scriptures but I’m going to quote just one. It says in 1 John 3:17–18
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
This is the way we can engage in this mitzvah today, even when there is no nation of Amalek left. We still have the moral obligation to combat the kind of cruelty that seeks to take advantage of the weak and the vulnerable. There are millions of ways to do this, from simple words of kindness to generous gifts of money, food, and even your own time and labor. Whatever way you choose, whichever vulnerability draws you to action, get busy.
We must support the vulnerable. We must take responsibility for them and make sure that they are not erased or forgotten. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. That is how we practice Yibum and Mechiyat Amalek today.