The Torah has two main discussions about Amalek, the first in Shemot (17:8–16) and the second in this week’s pasha, in Devarim (25:17–19). One of the most curious features in the story is the role played by Yehoshua. In the passage in Shemot, he appears out of nowhere to become the head of the Jewish army. Even more curious is the Torah’s insistence that his personal duty to fight against Amalek is to continue even after the war, such that God commands Moshe that the injunction to destroy Amalek be “placed in [Yehoshua’s] ears.” To further complicate matters, he is called Yehoshua in this battle even though his name is formally changed from Hoshea to Yehoshua only later, in the story of the spies. In short, Yehoshua dramatically appears on the scene, taking a major role in the conflict, and then goes right back into the shadows, appearing only occasionally throughout the rest of the Torah.

The most immediate reason Yehoshua needed to know about Amalek is that upon entering the land, he (and specifically carrying the name Yehoshua and not his previous name, Hoshea) would be leading many battles, both great and small. Among the battles that presumably lay ahead was that against Amalek. Still, it appears that there was something more general in the struggle against Amalek that Yehoshua needed to learn.

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In fact, the lessons of Amalek represent a very important warning to any Jewish military leader, Yehoshua being only the first. That teaching is that it is easy to uphold the highest standards of war during peacetime, but it is quite another for them to be upheld by a desperate general whose only chance to win lies in his willingness to fight a dirty war. Even a general who is not so desperate will sometimes be tempted to cut corners. Everyone knows that war is a nasty business, and it is difficult to imagine that morality and rules have any place in it. Yet even in the midst of the horrors of war, the Torah maintains that there is a need to maintain a basic respect for what it means to be human. This translates into a code of behavior that tells us that expediency is not everything, even when dealing with mortal enemies. Many niceties that exist in peacetime are placed to the side, and a thinner, emergency-footing morality sets in, but this is very different from the waiving of morality altogether.

As Israel’s first true military leader, it was essential for Yehoshua to understand Amalek as the anti-model. After all, we learn from our competitors. Amalek proved to be the most effective of all the armies that Israel would encounter on the way to its land. There is no doubt, then, of the temptation to learn how war should be fought specifically from them.

Amalek’s example is particularly enticing for someone descended from Yosef. In fact, many of his later descendants who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel would live by the notion that the ends justify the means. In such governance, everything is subordinated to the success of the state. If the leaders of the northern kingdom did not quite stoop to the depths of Amalek, the road they traveled had many similarities.

For several reasons, then, we can understand God’s unique and emphatic language when instructing Moshe to communicate Amalek’s derelict status to his eventual successor: “Place it into the ears of Yehoshua.” It is apparently not enough for Yehoshua to merely be told about it. He needs to internalize it; it has to go into his ears.

And while the Jewish people were without an army and police force for many centuries, the injunction to remember Amalek through all that time assured that when the time would come to reassert themselves in this manner, they would not be able to forget that morality has a place even on the field of battle.

{This essay is based on an excerpt from Rabbi Francis Nataf’s most recent book, Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Deuteronomy}

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Rabbi Francis Nataf (www.francisnataf.com) is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker and the author of four books of contemporary Torah commentary. His parshah column appears weekly in The Jewish Press. Rabbi Nataf is also the author of, "Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus"