Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Rabbi David Walk
In 1998, I made a recruiting trip for my yeshiva to the States. It was a spectacular failure. However, I had a wonderful time. I spent Shabbat at University of Pennsylvania, and had a pre-Shabbat run up the Rocky steps at the art museum. I gave shiurim at Harvard, Brandeis, Princeton, Columbia, U of Maryland and YU. I just didn't actually recruit many students. But here's the point I want to make: In 12 days in America, I flew 11 domestic flights. On 8 of them I had my luggage 'randomly' checked. That's a lot of randomness. The TSA didn't exist yet, but airport security checked me almost every flight. They were always courteous and assured me that they do no profiling. Right! I still don't know what set off the bells, maybe because I was travelling alone from the Middle East, perhaps the fact that I had a lot of luggage (gifts for my kids), could have been my beard. I'll probably never know. I'm not complaining. They always made sure I made my flight, and, to be honest, I think profiling is a good idea. Israel does it. So, this week I'd like to try and compile a profile for Amalek, based on a number of observations by our commentaries and the stories themselves.
Profiling is the collection and analysis of a person's psychological and behavioral characteristics to help predict capabilities or even future behavior. It's often used by police to help track perpetrators in certain types of serial crimes or with Amalek genocidal anti-Semites. Now with Amalek profiling is crucial, because we can't use DNA. Our Sages have taught us that the Assyrians not only exiled the ten tribes, but mixed up all the gene pools of the Middle East (Berachot 28a). There no longer exists an Amalek genome. So, we're really discussing Amalekism rather than Amalekites.
First up is the contribution of Rav Yehudah Amital OB"M of Yeshivat Har Etziyon, whom I quoted last week. He suggests that the critical word in the text to teach us about Amalek is karcha (Deuteronomy 24:18). This term can be translated as 'happened upon'. They believe that there is no plan for the world. Things just happen. He goes on to say that this kind of thinking is characteristic of the post-modern movement in which there are no absolutes or standards.
Going back in history, the Ramban (1194-1270) points out another phrase in that same verse, 'and did not fear God.' When Amalek first attacked a few weeks out from Egypt the whole world was in awe of God. The events surrounding the plagues and the splitting of the Sea impressed all the surrounding areas, but not Amalek. As the verse (Exodus 17:8) records: Amalek came and fought at Rephidim. Amalek had a nose for weakness. When they saw an opening, like the falling out with God over water at Rephidim, they charged into the breach. They didn't fear God; they were warriors of opportunity.
There's a fascinating approach from Reb Tzadok of Lublin (1823-1900), in his sefer Resisei Layla. He suggests that, as we shall presently see, Amalek attacked those not ready for war, because his weapon was false imagination. Amalek tried to replace any attempt at finding order in the world with chaos and nihilism. The true battle against Amalek is in spirit. Amalek wants to sow doubt and despair. The fight is to hold onto reason and faith.
All these positions can find support with a careful perusal of the times we fought Amalek. The first case, of course, at Rephidim, and in Devarim it's described like this: Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt. How he happened upon you and attacked the weakest in the rear when you were tired and weary (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). His battle tactics were basically war crimes. This pattern continued in the second encounter. After the edict to remain in the desert for 40 years for the sin of the Spies, some Jews decided to go to Israel anyway. This desperate, demoralized group was cut down by Amalek in the desert (Numbers 14:44-45).
But we see their MO most clearly in the story of Tziklag. This story towards the end of I Samuel clearly described the behavior of Amalek. BTW, I would have this story the Haftorah for parshat Zachor, rather than the story of Shaul's failure to kill Agag, but nobody asked me. This story begins in chapter 29, David is hiding from Shaul among the Philistine. He's living in Tziklag in the Negev with 600 warriors and their families. One of the five leaders of the Philistine nation, Achish, asks David to bring his warriors to Aphek in the north to help conquer the city. David complies and sets out with his men, leaving the women and children behind. However, upon arrival the other Philistine leaders don't trust David in the heat of battle, and he and his men return to their families.
Meanwhile, back at Tziklag, Amalek has attacked. They killed no one. Amalek burns down the camp and captures all the women and children to be sold into slavery (possibly back to Egypt, again to undo God's deliverance of the Jews, I Samuel 30:1-3). The men are distraught. Amalek follows his pattern: demoralize, sow doubt. David rallies the troops by consulting the Cohen's breastplate, similar to the encouragement from seeing Moshe's hands raised to heaven in Rephidim. They catch up with the Amalekites, rout them, and reunite with their families. Again, Amalek's behavior is psychological and tactics are war crimes.
The evil of Amalekism is powerful. It's ability to debilitate a population is based on psychology rather than weapons. The strategy is raise doubts about the existence of goodness and morality. The purpose is to question the existence of a Divine plan for humanity. The ultimate goal is to weaken God's power and presence in the world. Our strategy must display two tactics. First, fight them with all our might. Secondly, to live lives which are replete with empathy, spirituality and love. May God grant us the strength to soldier on.
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