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Israel and Amalek
(Yes, it's a rerun, but it's an important one)
This is a piece that first ran on my Blogger blog (yes, I had one) in 2006, and later appeared with a few changes in my Times of Israel blog in 2015. If you’ve already read it… well, read it again. And share it. Because it’s worth thinking about. Particularly with Purim coming up next week.
Purim, we’re told, will be with us even after all other post-biblical holidays are no longer celebrated. And there’s a solid reason for that.
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Judaism is about making distinctions. Distinctions between sacred and secular, between light and dark, between Jews and non-Jews, between male and female, between good and evil. We don’t blur distinctions; we shine a spotlight on them and learn from them. And in a system like that, polar opposites can teach the most.
Israel and Amalek are polar opposites. The concepts of Israel and Amalek, at any rate. Not all Jews live up to the concept of Israel, and not all Amalekites (at least in principle) are exemplars of the Amalekite worldview.
On Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim, we read Deuteronomy 25:17-19 as an extra reading:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you left Egypt. How they happened upon you on the way; how having no fear of God, they cut off the stragglers among you while you were tired and weary. And it will be when Hashem your God has given you respite from all your enemies all around, in the land which Hashem your God gives to you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall erase the name of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget.
The rabbis talk about the statement “How they happened upon you.” The Hebrew is asher korcha. The verb kor can mean “happen”, and it can mean “cold”. The rabbis explain that when we left Egypt, we were golden. The plagues didn’t take place in Egypt alone, but the world over. And people were terrified. At that point, we could have walked into Canaan and seen nothing but the afterimages of the Canaanites as they fled.
If not for Amalek.
When Amalek attacked us, even though we beat them in battle, they demonstrated that we could be attacked. They destroyed the mystique. They turned our miraculous escape from Egypt into something prosaic. The rabbis say that the word kor is used here because they “cooled us down”. They turned us from a burning star that no one would have dared touch into just another tribe of people. A huge one, granted, but killable like anyone else.
The truth is, both meanings of the word kor are correct in this case. Because that’s the entire idea of happenstance. Amalek made it look as though the Exodus “just happened.” No big deal.
In Parashat Bechukotai (the last parasha of Leviticus), God tells us what will happen if we blow Him and His mitzvot off. And He uses an unusual term in doing so. In Leviticus 26:21, after having warned us of the bad things that would happen to us if we didn’t keep Hashem’s Torah, He goes on to say:
And if you walk with Me in keri, and don’t feel like obeying Me, I will increase the punishment for your sins sevenfold.
What is keri? Some translations render it as “indifference”. Others as “happenstance”. Still others as “contrariness” (though I can’t imagine where that came from). It is the same root word as the kor in asher korcha. It is the act of making something important and fundamental into something that “just happened.” As Bechukotai continues, God keeps upping the ante.
If you continue acting as though all of this is just happenstance, then I will let the fires of happenstance take you.
Over and over. And God certainly had us pegged correctly. Because that is our biggest weakness: Refusing to see God’s Hand in the events that we experience. Being “realistic” when it’s just not appropriate.
We were born – as a nation – in the midst of miracles. We have survived – as a nation – through more miracles. To be “realistic” in the way that some people want is anything but. It is a denial of reality, and a denial of God. And God told us that if He allows bad things to happen to us and we refuse to see His Hand in it, it would get worse, and worse, and worse, until eventually we would wake up to what was happening, and return to Him.
In the story of Esther, Haman is an Amalekite. But that’s the smallest part of why Purim is about the eternal conflict between the opposing concepts of Israel and Amalek. The scroll of Esther does not contain God’s Name. Not even once. The entire story can be read as though it were nothing more than politics. Mordechai and Esther maneuvered within the system, and managed to save the Jews from annihilation. Luck and political savvy saved us. It’s possible to read the story that way, but, as the saying goes, that would be wrong.
The Purim story is all about seeing God even in the most prosaic of experiences. That is the concept of Israel. The concept of Amalek, by way of extreme contrast, is about seeing happenstance in the most miraculous of occurances. The Sages tell us that after the Flood in the days of Noah, some people worked out that the Flood had happened 1656 years after Creation (add up the begats; you’ll see). They came up with a brilliant theory. “The world floods,” they suggested, “every 1656 years. It’s a natural phenomenon, and all we need to do is come up with a way to protect ourselves every millenium and a half.” The nation of Amalek hadn’t come into being yet, but the notion of Amalek was already going strong.
Israel looks at Esther being in the right place at the right time, and sees a miracle. Amalek looks at the tiny State of Israel defeating enormous Arab armies in six days and sees military skill. Israel sees the sacred even in the profane. Amalek sees the profane even in the sacred.
And that’s why Purim will always be with us. Because it isn’t about Mordechai and Esther and Ahasuerus and Haman. It’s about the single most important concept in all of Judaism. Knowing God. Seeing God through His influence in the world. Recognizing that there’s more to reality than what you can hold in the palm of your hand.
Israel sees the sacred even in the profane. Amalek sees the profane even in the sacred.
Today, Orthodox Jews are divided into those with an Israelite outlook and those with an Amalekite outlook. And this is the point where some readers are going to get really annoyed. Orthodox Jews get up in the morning and pray to God. And in those prayers, we say these words from Psalms 20:8-9:
These [come] with chariots, and these [come] with horses, but we make mention of the Name of Hashem our God. These buckle and fall, but we rise up and are encouraged.
How many people take these words to heart when they say them? How many take them seriously in a practical sense? And how many walk out saying, “We have to get America to help Israel, because Israel cannot stand alone.” They may be the most ritually observant and stringent of Jews, but when they insist on “practicality” of that sort, they are adopting the Amalekite worldview.
Is it easy to set practical considerations aside? Not at all. But it is the very reason for our existence. It is the core concept of Torah and Judaism, and it is the single most important thing for Jews to understand today.
(This was originally published just before Purim 5766, on the Lamrot Hakol blog. The following is a question that was asked by one reader, and the reply given to the question. I include it because it covers things I wish I’d noted in the article)
Q: How do you reconcile this (which I agree is a very important part of the traditional Jewish world-view) with the rabbinic dictum not to rely on miracles?
A: Well, consider that on a certain level, everything is a miracle. Wine ferments because God makes it ferment. Coke fizzes because God makes it fizz.
It’s a miracle that the sun rises every morning and sets every evening. It’s just one that we’re used to, so we don’t think about it so much.
When the rabbis say not to rely on miracles, they can’t be talking about miracles like those. Nor can they be talking about miracles that God has already told us He’s going to do.
I can’t walk into traffic without looking and rely on God to protect me from my own folly through a miracle, but I can rely on God in other ways.
There’s a story that illustrates this. When Sennecherib was beseiging Jerusalem in the days of King Hezekiah, it looked really bad. Assyria had conquered all of the northern kingdom of Israel, and all of Judah except for Jerusalem.
The Assyrians offered us good land elsewhere if we’d just surrender. And there’s no reason to believe they were lying. It was worth their while, since they were going to settle us elsewhere anyway.
The majority of the people in the city, led by Shebna the scribe, felt we should surrender. Just… disengage from the Land of Israel. And to Hezekiah, this was a real problem.
Assyria was the superpower in the world at the time. Jerusalem… well, it was one city. In practical terms, there was no possible way to hold out against Sennecherib. Especially when he didn’t even have the support of a majority of his people.
And the prophet Isaiah came to Hezekiah and told him this:
And this shall be the sign unto thee: ye shall eat this year that which groweth of itself, and in the second year that which springeth of the same; and in the third year sow ye, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat the fruit thereof.
—II Kings 19:29, Isaiah 37:30
To any Jew familiar with the Torah, this was an obvious reference to Leviticus 25:
But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto God; thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. That which groweth of itself of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, and the grapes of thy undressed vine thou shalt not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.
Wherefore ye shall do My statutes, and keep Mine ordinances and do them; and ye shall dwell in the land in safety. And the land shall yield her fruit, and ye shall eat until ye have enough, and dwell therein in safety. And if ye shall say: ‘What shall we eat the seventh year? behold, we may not sow, nor gather in our increase’; then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years. And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat of the produce, the old store; until the ninth year, until her produce come in, ye shall eat the old store.
See, the very same question could be asked about the laws of the Sabbatical year. And even more so when it’s followed by a Jubilee year. For two full years, you can’t do any agricultural work. In an agricultural society like Israel was at the time, that should have meant starvation, famine and death. If that law isn’t a case of relying on a miracle, it’s hard to see what is.
But what Isaiah was telling Hezekiah was that there are times when we do rely on miracles. And when it comes to things that God has commanded us, we have no choice but to do so.
Sennecherib offered us a home elsewhere. But God said that we’re supposed to be living in the Land of Israel. Jerusalem was our last foothold in the land that God gave us. Even if an individual doesn’t have an obligation of settling the Land of Israel, there’s no question but that the Jews as a nation do have such an obligation.
Isaiah could not have been telling Hezekiah, “God says take the chance.” A prophet who issues a ruling of Jewish law through prophecy is supposed to be killed. What he was telling Hezekiah was that God had already told him to hold tight. And that’s what he did. And that’s why we’re still here today.
Have a Joyous and Israelite Purim
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