On the Shabbos before Purim, there is a special commandment to remember to forget the evil nation of Amalek. We do this right before Purim because Haman, the villain of the Purim story, who planned to annihilate the Jewish people, was a descendent off Amalek.
We fulfill our obligation of remembering to forget by hearing a passage read from the Torah about what Amalek did to us and how we must eradicate them from our memory. On their way out of Egypt, the ancient Amalekites launched a vicious sneak attack on the Children of Israel preying upon the weak and weary. Not only were they the first nation to attack us, the damage Amalek did put us in a vulnerable position from that point forward.
In midresh Tanchuma, our sages explain that Amalek’s attack was like a bathtub of scalding water where an idiot jumps in. While he suffers the consequences of the boiling water, he lowers the temperature for anyone else who comes along. At first the Jews seemed invincible after our exodus from the powerful nation of Egypt. But then when Amalek attacked us, while we were victorious against them, we no longer had the same status in the eyes of the other nations.
Besides remembering to forget Amalek, the Torah also commands us to destroy them. Because no one knows who they are any more, thankfully, this mitzvah does not apply to us and hasn’t for thousands of years. Additionally, not every rabbinic authority held that we had to kill all Amalekites, even when we knew who they were. Maimonides believed that an Amalekite could renounce his murderous ways by becoming a righteous gentile or convert to Judaism. Then we would no longer be obligated to kill him. (See Rabbi Ari Kahn for more ideas on the topic.) Other authorities, like Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, explain in his commentary on Deuteronomy 25 that we are obligated to destroy “the remembrance of Amalek” rather than actual Amalekites.
Every religious Jew I have ever spoken to has always acknowledged that they struggle with how to understand this mitzvah even though it is only theoretical at this point. But several years ago, I met someone who told me that when she was in school one of her rabbis told the class that if there was an Amalekite baby right here right now that he 100% knew was an Amalekite, he would just get in his car and run it over.
I was deeply shocked and highly disturbed upon hearing what this rabbi said. Even if this rabbi didn’t follow Maimonides or Rav Hirsch and believed that with 100% knowledge of the Amalekite status he’d be obligated to murder a baby, it is so troubling that he had no hesitation or qualms about committing such a gruesome act. And he said this to a room full of students, no less!
Yes, we are required to follow the commandments of the Torah, but the Torah commands us to be compassionate beings. What we find in this mitzvah is a tension between conflicting Jewish values.
The purpose of Jewish law is not to turn us into blind robots who follow orders without questions or ignore the tension that exists in the performance of certain commandments. Indeed, it is meant to develop us into refined human beings who live in order improve our personal character traits and ethics, always striving to become more like the Almighty. The commandments exist, in part, to push us to question them, to question God, to not take anything at face value. Our greatest leaders like Abraham and Moses openly and courageously questioned God when they thought His decrees were unjust. In fact “struggles with God” is the meaning of the world Yisrael (Israel).
While this rabbi surely thought that his declaration of commitment to Jewish law was a proud sign of his religiosity, I would argue that by not teaching his students the deep discomfort we should feel around something morally reprehensible and the fact that he had not looked for other intellectual approaches in dealing with such a challenging topic meant that he had missed the mark on giving over our traditions with the depth and nuance they demand. It is a miracle that the Jewish people have survived throughout the generations, and we must ensure that our beautiful teachings, with all of their complexities, survive as well.