“Parashat Zachor: ‘Hating as a Mitzvah'”
(updated and revised from Vayikra 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Since the festival of Purim will be celebrated this coming Saturday night and Sunday, March 23rd and 24th, this week’s Torah portion, parashat Vayikra, is followed by an additional Torah reading known as “Parashat Zachor.” Parashat Zachor, excerpted from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, contains the biblical commandment of remembering the evil enemy nation of Amalek. This Torah portion is regarded as so important that every Jewish man and woman is mandated to listen to the live reading of this vital Torah portion.

Parashat Zachor opens with the resounding words, זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם, Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were leaving Egypt! The Torah relates that Amalek (a nation descended from Esau), without cause or provocation, attacked the Israelite nation whom G-d had miraculously liberated from slavery in Egypt. Afraid to attack the strongest tribes of Israel, the Amalekites dastardly struck those who were hindmost, weak, faint and exhausted. The parasha concludes with the inspiring Divine 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 the People of Israel, תִּמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם, לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח, Eradicate the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Never forget!

According to tradition, Haman was a direct descendent of the nation of Amalek. In Samuel I 15:3, we learn that the prophet Samuel instructs King Saul to do battle and eliminate the Amalekites and their king, Agag. But, King Saul had mercy on Agag, and in those last few moments of his life, Agag impregnates a woman, whose descendants, many generations later, eventually sired Haman. The Midrash in Kohelet Rabbah 7:16, boldly declares that “One who has compassion at a time when they should be cruel, will eventually be cruel at a time that they should be compassionate.”

In February 2003, the highly acclaimed scholar, Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, penned an essay in the Christian theological journal Present Tense, entitled The Virtue of Hate. In this essay, Rabbi 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 detestable and murderous human beings as Hitler, Stalin or Osama Bin Laden. Dr. 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, while the Old Testament God is a God of anger and vengeance.

To be sure, Prof. Soloveichik’s arguments are technically correct. Unfortunately, he fails to put these valid arguments within a proper context. Clearly, Judaism recognizes that there are instances when a person is deemed to have passed the point of “no return,” 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, if not 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, Professor Soloveichik’s essay leaves the reader with the incorrect 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 most hard-core wicked. In his essay, Dr. Soloveichik correctly cites the famous Talmudic Midrash (tractate Sanhedrin, 39b), 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 as well, that Jews do not recite the full Hallel after the first two days of Passover.

In fact, there are many rituals and customs that underscore the mercifulness of G-d and his People toward 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 Seven 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 although Korach was swallowed up by the earth, his children repented, and that the prophet Samuel was a great grandson, and even that some of the descendants of Haman eventually converted to Judaism and taught Torah in B’nai Brak.

While it may be “virtuous” to hate 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 humans 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 spare no 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: יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים מִן-הָאָרֶץ, וּרְשָׁעִים עוֹד אֵינָם, 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 other avenue of repentance, do we pray for the destruction of the evil people themselves!

The brother of the Chazon Ish, 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) וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה, 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 insightfully: 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 those who are thoroughly evil, 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.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

Please note: Because of Shabbat, the Fast of Esther is observed earlier, on Thursday, March 21st from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Saturday night and Sunday, March 23-24, 2024.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.