As we say at the Pesah Seder, Lavan was by far not the only enemy who sought to destroy the Jewish people; every generation has such an enemy. The Shabbat before Purim, we read of the mitzvah to wipe out Amalek, the first to attack the Jews after they left Egypt. In a world where mass murder has been too frequent a reality—the Jews in the Holocaust are, sadly, but one of the twentieth century’s attempted genocides—the idea Jews are told to wipe out some other nation bothers many (I heard Nehama Leibowitz zt”l once said any student who doesn’t challenge the Torah on this is either asleep or has an insufficient moral compass).
Two aspects of the mitzvah might carve out some room for comfort. First, its limits. Rambam in the sixth chapter of Laws of Kings holds Jewish kings must offer peace before waging war with anyone, including Canaanite nations, whom the Torah seems to say must either leave Israel or be killed. For Rambam, Canaanites could stay in Israel if they committed to observing the Noahide laws (which tradition thought obligatory on all non-Jews anyway), and a subordinate position in Jewish society, demonstrated by paying financial tribute and rendering physical service.
Ra’avad disagrees, thinks their only ways to avoid death were to leave or convert to Judaism. Crucially for my point, both agree there is some way they could stay in Israel, let alone not be killed.
Rambam’s version suggests Gd wanted the Jews to rid the land of Canaanite influence. If they adopted a different worldview, encapsulated in the Noahide laws, and permanently gave up their rights to power or leadership, they would remove their threat. Ra’avad, I think, thinks the problem continues unless they throw aside their Caananite-ness completely.
Our multicultural world might object to the idea any culture must be completely destroyed; the Torah disagrees. Rambam and Ra’avad, I think, differ on how far a member of such a culture must go to prove s/he has shed its corruptions.
The extension to Amalek surprises us at first, because the Torah seems more unequivocal in calling for their destruction. I think Rambam included them in the Canaanite loophole because he thought it would address their wrong as well. The Torah describes their crime as asher karekha ba-derekh, Deuteronomy 25;18.
Most plainly, it means who met you on the way. Rashi quotes Hazal’s Midrashic reading, who cooled you off. On their way out of Egypt, backed by word of Gd’s exploits on their behalf, no one dared take on the Jews. Amalek’s willingness to try made it again a possibility they could contemplate.
Without Amalek, Hazal imagine the Jews walking into Israel unimpeded. Had that continued, they might not have asked to send spies, might have gotten to Israel within a few years of the Exodus, conquered the land with no opposition, and set up a Gd-focused. What would that have done for the project of bringing the world to accept Gd’s dominion over all?
We will never know, the stain Amalek bears forever, their having moved the world from a path where Gd’s power and involvement was clear, to one where we struggle ourselves to be aware and to bring others to proper awareness of Gd’s rule and role in the world. To be of Amalek means to come from a people who dealt a significant blow to humanity.
The ways forward open for them only if they are ready to address, repent, and relinquish, their past.
(Many treat Amalek as an ideological matter, as if that is more morally palatable. To me, it complicates the issue, because the Torah makes a mitzvah of wiping out whoever counts as Amalek. Are we more comfortable wiping out men, women, and children who identify with Nazism, Communism, or other ideologies thought of as Amalek? Whatever the answer, Rambam is telling us the way out is rejecting the identity, and forging a new one.)
The mitzvot of Amalek—to keep our hatred for them alive by reminding ourselves what they did, to kill them if opportunity presents itself– tell me the Torah wants us to remember to care about history reaching its successful conclusion. Amalek’s choice to be the first opponents of Gd, to move the Jewish people’s impact on the world to a longer, more circuitous route to success, earned them a special slot in the world’s rogues’ gallery.
Relief comes with renunciation of their past, else we will do it for them, the Torah says. Getting us back to our real business, ushering in Gd’s Kingdom on Earth.