Chaos and hate – our outer and inner enemy.
Thoughts on Parashat Beshalach
This week Torah portion contains stories that are famous and widespread in the entire western culture. It tells us about Pharaoh chasing after Israelites, to force their return to Egypt, splitting the Sea of Reeds; Israelites experiencing their first thirst and hunger in the desert, Moses bringing forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, manna raining down from the heavens and so on.
But today we will focus in the story told in the last verses of our Torah portion. They tell us the story of Amalek, who brutally attacked our people in Rephidim, but was fortunately defeated by Moses’ prayers and an army raised by Joshua. However, it’s just the beginning of Amalek’s and Amalekites story, which is already announced in the last verses of our parashah:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi. He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of the LORD!’ The LORD will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” (Shemot/Exodus 17:14-16)
In the Torah as well as the rest of the Bible, the people of Amalek occupy a unique position: they were among Israel’s enemies, but alone among these their enmity will last forever. It would by divine fiat be irreconcilable and only complete disappearance of the Amalekites would satisfy God’s anger. The necessity of their disappearance is strongly emphasized in the Torah: as many as three from 613 commandments enumerated by Maimonides concern Amalek:
598 Deut. 25:17 – Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites
599 Deut. 25:19 – Wipe out the descendants of Amalek
600 Deut. 25:19 – Not to forget Amalek’s atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert.
What Amalek and the Amalekites did in fact to Israelites? The rabbis believed that the Torah used ‘euphemistic language’ to describe what they did. The Talmud and Midrash fill in the details: the Amalekites raped, castrated and murdered the Jewish men (Midrash Tanchuma 10; Rashi on Deuteronomy 25:17). This was hardly a way to treat a people who just suffered hundreds of years of slavery and were wandering in a great desert.
There’s another question about it. Exodus 17:14 says that God himself will blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, whereas Deuteronomy 25:19 states that you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, and, Do not forget! Is this a contradiction? It is not and I will explain it below.
Indeed the Israelites failed in fulfilling these commandments numerous times, starting from king Shaul, who spared the life of king Agag for one day, even though he was commanded exterminate all the Amalekites, immediately:
Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (I Samuel 15:3)
Shaul “fixed his mistake”, but during that one night Amalek, as the Midrash tells us, conceived a son, which made the Amalekites survive. As a result of that we have then, centuries later, Haman the Agagite, who, in the Book of the Esther, wanted to exterminate all the Jewish people. Then we have the king Sennacherib, who, according to the Book of Isaiah erased the borders of peoples; have plundered their treasures, and exiled their vast populations. (Is 10:13). What happened then? According to traditional, rabbinic interpretation, the Amalekites have been spread among all the nations and it is called sometimes “the transmigration of Amalek”.
There are various interpretations regarding this issue: who are the contemporary Amalekites? How to recognize them? And so on. We will leave this aside here. What I would suggest in this drasha is the following: Amalek represents chaos; we and our tradition – order and the rule of the law. Amalek represents war and hate, whereas we and our tradition – peace and love. Amalek is an enemy of every decent and sensitive human being. And since there is a debate whether he is a real, personified enemy or our own, “internal enemy”, in the form of all our internal negativities, I will suggest that he is both.
In fact, in order to fight hate and chaos we must first overcome it in ourselves. Only then we will have enough strength for fighting them in the ‘external’ world, by having the ability to come out of the context of hatred and face it with our backs straight and our shoulders back. It does not mean simply to fight evil with good; no, the matter is not that simple. It depends on the balance of power, when facing evil directly. We can fight evil with good effectively only when there is a strong advantage of power on our side. If the forces of evil have a significant advantage of power over us the only thing we can do is run away from them. Otherwise we will become victims and that’s not the scenario we would like to embrace, at least, most of us. Thus we need to make sure that there’s enough power in us. If we lack it, we must necessarily get it from all possible sources. Thus we need to be united, since unity is one of the main things that power flows from.
Fighting the contemporary Amalekites, that is, all the dark powers in us and in the world is in fact divine-human enterprise. In my opinion that’s precisely the reason that the Torah states it twice and differently, firstly about God blotting out his name and then about our obligation to do so. I strongly believe that with the divine help we are all able to fight Amalek in us and in the external world. And that’s the goal, the most important goal of our time – to overcome hate and chaos.