In honor of Purim, we present a letter from the Rebbe in which he responds to a law professor who asked “How can a humane, civilized person today accept the Biblical commandment to wipe out the entire nation of Amalek?” A second letter is presented as well, in which the Rebbe derives a lesson from Queen Esther.
The letters are from the archives of Rabbi Nissan Mindel, OBM, personal secretary to the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe, and were made available by his son-in-law, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schapiro.
This new weekly feature is made possible by a collaboration between CrownHeights.info and Nissan Mindel Publications. Once a week we will be publishing unique letters of the Rebbe that was written originally in the English language.
By the Grace of G-d
Philadelphia, Pa. 19122
Greeting and Blessing:
I am in receipt of your letter. I must confess that I hesitated whether or not to reply to the letter, not being certain whether the question was prompted by a genuine desire to ascertain the truth or, as it unfortunately happens all too often, it might be a case where the inquirer hopes that his query will remain unanswered and thus lend support to his preconceptions.
As you see, I decided to place you Bechezkas Kashrus, especially in view of your references to primary sources, which attest to a positive link with our Torah. Furthermore, the name……. is in most cases identified with the Chasam Sofer , z’l.
I was influenced by the fact that you are, as you write, a Professor of Law, which is a further indication of being a person who upholds the truth in accordance with the tenets of the Law.
Now for the question itself, quoting your letter, “How can a humane, civilized person today accept the Biblical commandment to wipe out the entire nation of Amalek,” etc., including infants, etc.?
It is surely unnecessary to point out to you that in any kind of a dialogue there must be some common ground, i.e. some mutually accepted premises, upon which the discussion can be based. In the present instance I assume that we both accept the said commandment as being part of Torah min ha’Shomayim. In other words, the Commander of this commandment is not a human being like you and me, but a Divine Being with all that it implies in terms of omniscience, etc. Actually, the precaution is superfluous, for the question itself rests on its Divine origin and validity for all posterity; if it were limited in time and circumstances, the question would have no place ex initio.
A second point which is also implicit in your question is that the original war with Amalek which gave rise to the said commandment, in itself presents no problem. It was clearly a defensive war in response to an unprovoked attack, as the Torah states: “And Amalek came and made war on Israel in Refidim,” etc. (Exod. 17:8), and again,” … who surprised you on the way,” etc. (Deut. 25:18). Here was an obvious case of self-defense, or, to quote the Talmudic rule, “Whoever comes to kill you, kill him first.”
Assuming, as we did, that we are speaking of a Divine commandment, we must also assume that G-d is no less clairvoyant than any human being, if there is such a human being. To put it more boldly: if we should accept, as some scientists have asserted, that were it possible to feed into a computer all the data of the universe, it could accurately predict the state of the world at any given moment in the future – we should surely have to credit the Creator with no less competence.
Now, if such a legendary computer were possible, it could correctly foresee how a newborn baby child would behave in adulthood, and whether that child would grow up to be harmless, useful or destructive to the society.
In light of the above, the reason behind the said commandment becomes apparent. G-d, Who is all-knowing (more than a computer could be), foresaw what the seed of Amalek would develop into. Hence, He commanded that on seeing an Amalekite, even an Amalekite infant, we must “remember what Amalek did unto you,” remembering also, as it is immediately emphasized in the Biblical text,, why: Amalek had not been threatened in any way, had not been provoked, stood to gain little from a nomad people, pouncing on them suddenly, without warning, giving them no chance to defend themselves, taking advantage of their being “tired and weary.” Such a barbaric people and this kind of inhuman behavior, has no place in human society, the Torah tells us, and must therefore be exterminated without a trace. Let me emphasize again: we are not dealing here with a suspicion or apprehension, however well founded, but with an absolute certainty, for we have established that G-d’s prescience infinitely surpasses the most perfect computer imaginable.
As a matter of fact, we have in this particular subject under discussion an historic confirmation precisely the kind of eventuality we have in mind. In the Torah she’be’al’Peh (which I also include in our “common ground,” since you quote from the Talmud), we are told in commentary on the Torah she’biktav what were the consequences of disregarding the said commandment. King Saul, after defeating Amalek and capturing the Amalekite king Agag alive, had compassion on him and did not execute him at once – in contravention of the Prophet Samuel’s instructions based on the commandment which we are discussing. The result of this misplaced clemency, which extended Agag’s life for one day, was that during the night he was able to impregnate a woman and of this seed, many generations later, came forth Haman and his ten sons, who plotted the complete annihilation of the Jewish people in one day. Fortunately the situation was miraculously reversed and Haman and his sons were hanged. Unfortunately, in self defense, the Jews were compelled to take up arms and kill 75,000 enemies, as related in the Book of Esther. Obviously, had Saul carried out the command fully and promptly, the Jewish people would have been spared the terrorism and the agony caused by Haman the Agagite, and there would have been no need for all that bloodshed which was forced upon the Jews in self defense. And all these tragic consequences came to pass because Saul had attempted to inject his personal feelings and reasons into what was a clear Divine commandment.
Much more could be said on the subject, but I trust the above will suffice.
One additional observation on the subject, however. It so happens that the commandment under discussion has a logical explanation, which moreover, is borne out by historical experience in a most striking manner. But this does not mean that when G-d gave the Torah He necessarily had to provide a humanly acceptable explanation, within grasp of each and every individual, for each and every commandment which He ordained in His Torah. Obviously, the human intellect is limited, like all human capacities, and a human being is further limited in time and place, whereas the Divine commandments are, by definition, infinite and timeless. Surely, no individual, however wise, can logically challenge the wisdom of the Torah or any particular in it. Jews have always taken the Divine Torah in this spirit and recognized it for what it is – a Toras Chessed and Torahs Emes, in addition to the other epithets by which the Torah is characterized – and time and again throughout our long history, chose martyrdom rather than betray it, being victims of just such a policy of “killing every single member, even women and sucklings,” to repeat your quotation.
I trust that the above has shed some light on the “problem” and by extension, on similar problems.
P.S. it surprises me, in view of your background, as a Professor of Law, that you formulated the problem on moral grounds (the horror of genocide), whereas it would seemingly be more forceful to challenge it on legal grounds, namely, the apparent contradiction in the same codex. From the viewpoint of Law, it would surely be a more effective argument to say: How can you reconcile such an apparently “cruel” decree with the very nature of Torah , as a Toras Chessed, given by a compassionate and merciful G-d? All the more so, when compassion is demanded even toward the lower species, as underscored in the episode about Rabbi Judah the Prince who, for not showing adequate compassion for a calf led to the slaughter, suffered years of painful ill-health (B.M. 85a), although from the practical point of view the cause was inconsequential.
By the Grace of G-d
Erev Purim, 5737
Northridge, Cal. 91324
Blessing and Greeting:
I received your letter and may G-d grant the fulfillment of your heart’s desires for good, and you should have good news to report in all matters about which you wrote.
The zechus of your observance of our sacred traditions – which I was gratified to note in your letter -will surely stand you and yours in good stead in all above, including your continued advancement in all matters of Torah and mitzvos. For, although this is a “must” for its own sake, in compliance with G-d’s Will, this is also the “channel and vessel” to receive additional Divine blessings in all needs, materially and spiritually.
The above is a particularly timely message now that we are about to celebrate Purim, the highlight of which is the reading of Megilah evening and morning. It is noteworthy and significant that although – as the Megilah tells us – both Mordechai and Esther were instrumental in bringing about the Miracle of Purim and saving our people, the Megilah is not named after both of them jointly, nor alter Esther and Mordechai in that order, but solely alter Esther – “Megilas Esther.” Here is a pointedly emphatic message for every Jewish woman about her unique role in Jewish life. To be sure, no one can compare to the stature of Queen Esther, but it does emphasize the extraordinary potential of every loyal Jewish daughter to shape the future of her family, with far-reaching consequences for the environment and even for the entire Jewish people.
If this seems farfetched and mystical, the following episode will illustrate what even a comparatively small effort can accomplish.
You may have heard that many of our senior Lubavitch students volunteer their summer vacation to travel to distant places in order to reach out to fellow-Jews in need of encouragement to strengthen their identity with and commitment to our people and the Torah way. In the course of this program it so happened that one of the students visited a small. Jewishly isolated town where he found only a few Jewish families and, as he later reported, he was disappointed to have accomplished nothing there. But several months later, our Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch which sponsors this program received a letter from one of the families in the town. The writer, a woman, related that one summer day she happened to stand by her front window when she saw a bearded young man, wearing a dark hat, his tzitzis showing, approaching her door. She confessed that when she admitted the young man and learned of the purpose of his visit, she was not responsive, for she and her family were not prepared at that moment to change their lifestyle. Yet for a long time after that encounter, the appearance of the young man haunted her. He reminded her of her grandfather and had refreshed her memories of the beautiful Jewish life she had seen in her grandparents’ home, though the material circumstances were incomparably more modest than she had come to know in her married life. Finally – the letter went on – she decided to make the change. She made her home kosher and the family began to observe Shabbos and Yom Tov and she is raising the children in the Torah way. Since then her home was filled with such contentment and serenity that she decided to write to the M.L.Ch. and express her profound gratitude.
Now, if all that was the result of a brief encounter with that young man, though unbeknown to him of his lasting impact, how much more can be achieved by an American Jewish family, whose influence is not limited to a few minutes’ conversation, but serves as a shining example of the kind of daily life and conduct that should be the privilege and blessing of every Jewish family.
Needless to say, if in maintaining the proper Jewish standards there may be some difficulties to overcome (many of which may even be more imaginary than real), surely such difficulties should be of no significance in comparison to the infinite benefits. Moreover, the effort required is a personal one, while the benefit is also for the many.
With prayerful wishes for a joyous and inspiring Purim and
The above letters are from the archives of Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel, the personal secretary to the Previous Rebbe and The Rebbe, whose responsibilities included the Rebbes correspondence.
Many of the letters, originally in English are now being published in The Letter and the Sprit series as prepared by Rabbi Mindel.
We thank Rabbi Shalom Ber Schapiro, Director of The Nissan Mindel Publications, and the one entrusted by Rabbi Mindel, his father-in-law, with his archives, for making these letters available to the wider public. May the merit of the many stand him in good stead.