Parashat Ki Tetze, ends with the mitzvah of Zakhor: Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amalek: 17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19 Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
This Shabbat we remember Steven Sotloff, z”l. An American journalist from Miami, he was also Jewish. In 2008 he made aliyah and held dual American and Israeli citizenship. As a journalist, he was committed to uncovering the truth, even if it meant putting himself in great danger. While on assignment in Syria last year, he was kidnapped by the Islamic State. When another American journalist, James Foley, of blessed memory, was brutally murdered and beheaded by ISIS, the terrorists announced that Sotloff was next. Despite an emotional appeal by his mother, Sotloff was brutally executed and beheaded this week. Our nation mourns. Within our shock and outrage, we ask how it is that these ISIS terrorists can imagine the brutality that they have committed.
Within our tradition, the rabbis ask the same question about Amalek. In the Midrash, the rabbis ask what was Amalek’s motive? After all, following the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites showed the world they had God on their side. What could a nation hope to gain by attacking Israel?
The Midrash uses the analogy of a boiling hot bath. The first person that jumps in gets badly burned – but cools the bath off considerably, making it easier for the next person to jump in. Amalek so badly wanted the Israelites destroyed, that they were willing to attack Israel even after having witnessed how God’s powerful hand had protected them. Amalek was defeated, as the Torah tells us, but their gutsy, almost suicidal, attack on the Jews did a lot to alter the prevalent thinking of the time that the Jews and their God were invincible.
The world has a bad habit of standing by watching terrorists brutalize innocent civilians. The world has been particularly tolerant of Hamas terrorists who threaten the lives of millions of Israelis with rockets and tunnels and then put their own children in harm’s way as defensive shields when Israel retaliates against the rocket fire. When the democratic nation of Israel defends her citizens from terrorism, Israel is reviled throughout the world and accused of war crimes. What many around the world fail to understand is that if terrorism fueled by Islamic fundamentalism is allowed to exist in Israel, it will spread to the rest of the civilized world. As Prime Minister Netanyahu says, if Israel is forced to tolerate terror, it will come soon to a theater near you. Tragically, that is what we are witnessing with ISIS. President Obama called ISIS a cancer that must be stopped before it spreads even more. It’s an apt metaphor; however, we must recognize both the source of the cancer and prior failures to fight it.
James Foley and Steven Sotloff are hardly the first Americans to fall victims to the diabolical terror of Islamic fundamentalism. This week, we mark the 13th anniversary of 9/11 when 3,000 people died on our soil. The mitzvah of Zakhor extends beyond words and tributes to those who perished at the hands of terrorists. Zakhor requires further action.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I believe our nation failed to seize the moment to challenge Americans to make our society better and more respected in the world. The mitzvah of remembering Amalek caps a parasha with more mitzvoth than any other parasha: fair weights and measures in business, safe building practices in home construction, and protection of the weaker members of society. It’s as if a message of our parasha is that the best antidote to evil is a society that lives by laws and high moral principles. When there is a breakdown of that structure, Amalek is invited to enter.
In the midst of self-reflection of how we in Western civilization have allowed terrorism to spread, there’s another angle to explore. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, wrote three years ago how Osama bin Laden thought he could get away with it. The same question applies today to ISIS and their genocidal rampage. Rav Sacks writes that bin Laden thought he could get away with it because he saw the West in decline.
Sacks writes about the moral decline of our society and the diminishing commitment to communal values throughout the West. He writes: “Whenever Me takes precedence over We, and pleasure today over viability tomorrow, a society is in trouble. If so, then the enemy is not radical Islam, it is us and our by now unsustainable self-indulgence.
The West has expended much energy and courage fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq abroad and defeating terror at home. It has spent far less, if any, in renewing its own morality and the institutions — families, communities, ethical codes, standards in public life — where it is created and sustained. But if I am right, this is the West’s greatest weakness in the eyes of its enemies as well as its friends.”
ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas and other radical groups scoff at our values in which preservation of life reigns supreme. Like Amalek generations ago, they willingly jump into a hot bath to show the world that beheadings can be done. Our leaders must have the moral gumption to fight this tyranny and stop it. Moreover, we as citizens must continue to build a society rooted in the highest values of human dignity.
Rav Sacks’ words about 9/11 ring true today. He writes:
“The only way to save the world is to begin with ourselves. Our burden after 9/11 is to renew the moral disciplines of freedom. Some say it can’t be done. They are wrong: it can and must. Surely we owe the dead no less.”
May we be inspired by Parashat Ki Tetze to create a just society that prevents Amalek from rearing its ugly head. That will be the best way we can honor Steven Sotloff’s memory, may his memory be for a blessing.