“Parashat Zachor: ‘Hating as a Mitzvah?'”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Since the festival of Purim will be celebrated this coming Monday night, March 17th and Tuesday, March 18th, this week’s Torah portion, parashat Vayikra, is complemented with a second Torah portion known as “Parashat Zachor.” Parashat Zachor, (a reading from Deuteronomy 25:17-19) contains the biblical commandment of remembering Amalek, and every Jewish man and woman is mandated to listen to the reading of this important Torah portion.

Parashat Zachor opens with the resounding words, “Zachor et asher ah’sah l’chah Amalek, ba’derech b’tzayt’chem mee’mitz’rayim,” Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were leaving Egypt! The Torah explains that Amalek (a nation descended from Esau), without cause or provocation, attacked those Israelites who were hindmost, weak, faint and exhausted. The parasha concludes with the inspiring prophecy that a day will yet come when G-d will give the Jewish people rest from all their enemies in the land of Israel. On that fateful day, the Torah adjures us, “Tim’cheh et zay’cher Amalek mee’tah’chat ha’shamayim, lo tish’kach,” Eradicate the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Never forget!

According to tradition, Haman was a direct descendent of Amalek. In the book of Samuel (I Samuel, 15) we learn that the prophet Samuel instructed King Saul to do battle and eliminate the Amalekites and their king, Agag. But, King Saul had mercy on Agag, and in those last moments of his life, Agag impregnated a woman, whose descendants, many generations later, eventually sired Haman. Our rabbis in Kohelet Rabbah 7:16 tell us that, “One who has compassion at a time that they should be cruel, will eventually be cruel at a time that they should be compassionate.”

Recently, a highly acclaimed young scholar, Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, penned an essay in the Christian theological journal Present Tense entitled The Virtue of Hate. In this essay, Soloveichik argues that while Christian theology supports forgiveness for everyone–even for the most thoroughly wicked human beings, Judaism maintains that forgiveness may be withheld from such human beings like Hitler, Stalin or Osama Bin Laden. Soloveichik’s essay caused a great stir in both the Jewish and Christian intellectual communities. To some Jewish scholars it aroused visions of the old calumny that the Christian God is a God of love, and the Old Testament God is a God of anger and vengeance.

To be sure, Soloveichik’s arguments are technically correct. Unfortunately, he fails to put these valid arguments within the proper context. Clearly Judaism recognizes that there are instances when a person is deemed to have passed the point of ever meriting salvation, and is consequently destined to oblivion, which in Judaism means that their soul is cut off and ceases to exist. But reaching that point of oblivion is extraordinarily difficult and virtually impossible to reach. Very few human beings, who are all created in the image of G-d, will ever merit that fate or reach that point. Unfortunately, the Soloveichik essay leaves the reader with the impression that there may be many who fall into this category, and that qualifying for oblivion is not all that difficult.

To the contrary, Judaism does theological somersaults in order to find merit even for the hard core wicked. In his essay, Soloveichik correctly cites the famous Midrash that tells how the Al-mighty silenced the Jews who sang at the splitting of the Red Sea: “My creatures are drowning in the waters and you sing praises to Me?” It is for that reason that Jews do not recite the full Hallel after the first day of Passover.

In fact, there are many rituals and customs that underscore the mercifulness of G-d and his People towards their enemies, even mortal enemies. When the list of the ten plagues is chanted at the Passover seder, it is customary for the celebrants to remove a drop of wine for each plague, for we may not rejoice when our enemy falls. Even when attacking the inhabitants of ancient Canaan who refused to abide by the basic Noahide principles of “Thou shalt not murder,” the ancient Israelites were required to greet their enemies in peace, and were forbidden to besiege the enemy city on all four sides, allowing a route for the enemies to escape (Maimonidies, Laws of Kings, Chap. 6). Furthermore, rabbinic tradition (Rashi Numbers 26:11, Ibn Ezra Numbers 6:23, Talmud, Gittin 57b) has it that the children of Korach repented, that the prophet Samuel was a great grandson, and that the descendants of Haman eventually converted to Judaism and taught Torah in B’nai Brak.

While, there may be “virtue” to hating ultimate evil, Judaism’s perceptions of hating evil are far from cut and dry. Does G-d not know that the men who built the tower of Babel are frightfully evil? Is not the whole world aware that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were the most wicked on the face of the earth? And yet, scripture, in both instances (Genesis 11:5 and 18:21), depicts G-d as having to come down from heaven to see the peoples’ evil, to inspect the evil with His own eyes, thus teaching the lesson that human courts of law must not spare any effort in their investigations of people suspected of evil (see Rashi cf.). If G-d can come down from heaven in order to see what the people of the Tower of Babel did and what the people of Sodom and Gomorrah did, then human beings of flesh and blood who sit in judgment of others must likewise exhaust every possible venue before condemning anyone as evil.

Our Talmud (Berachot 28b) tells us that only one scholar, Shmuel Hakatan, Samuel the Small, was great enough (that is, humble enough) to compose the prayer for our enemies, the nineteenth benediction of the Amidah. After all, our scriptures, in Psalms 104:35, concludes: “Yee’tah’moo chah’tah’im min ha’aretz oor’shah’im od ay’nam,” let the evil be extirpated from the earth, and there will be no more evil people. Consequently, we Jews pray for the destruction of the evil in people, and only then as a last resort, only after we have exhausted every avenue of repentance, do we pray for the destruction of the evil people themselves!

The brother of the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Abraham Karelitz was once challenged. After all, his questioners asked, the Torah (Exodus 34:6-7) enumerates 13 attributes of G-d’s mercy. But the final attribute is (Exodus 34:7) “V’nah’kay lo yee’nah’keh,” and He will not forgive. If we are to imitate G-d and His mercifulness, then we must also imitate G-d’s lack of forgiveness. The scholar responded very cleverly: If a human being’s vengeance is preceded by 12 qualities of mercy, then a human may be vengeful as well.

The Al-mighty and His human creations may punish evildoers, but only if the punishment is the last and final resort. While Judaism does countenance the ultimate punishment of thoroughly evil people, it does not countenance wanton hatred, and does not view hatred as a mitzvah. Simply stated, semantics aside, there is no way to ascribe any “virtue” to hatred in Judaism.

May you be blessed.