Ki Tetze – Pesky Amalekites, Reprise
This is a guest post, contributed by Russell Harding, who delivered this sermon in the Wellington Hebrew Congregation, Shabbat 2 September, 2017.
We were recently treated to an insightful Shiur from our own Tadhg Cleary on the nature of the battle with the Amalekites. Ki Tetsei gives us an opportunity to fulfil three Mitzvot in case we missed it earlier in the year. These are:
1. The obligation to remember what Amalek did to the Jewish people when they were leaving Egypt (603);
2. The obligation to destroy the seed of Amalek (604); and
3. The prohibition to forget what Amalek did to our ancestors when they were leaving Egypt (605).
The Sefer Ha Chinuch explains that the first Mitzvah requires that we not only remember what Amalek did to our ancestors but that we verbalise it. If we merely make a mental note along with buying milk, hummus and bananas on the way home, we are likely to forget in the same way I forget to pick up the groceries. There are some obvious questions: One, what was it that Amalek did? Second question – why has Amalek been picked out especially for these Mitzvot? And finally, if the war against Amalek is intergenerational, what do these Mitzvot mean in our time?
In Tadhg’s Shiur he explained that Amalek travelled a great distance to wage war. It was not a people that the Israelites encountered on their way. Amalek had to go out of its way for this war. Further, Tadhg argued, Amalek’s war was not against Israel per se, but rather against G-D. Israel emerged from slavery in Egypt amid wonders and miracles. Those who hear of the Exodus were dumbfounded:
Nations heard and were frightened, The dwellers of Philistia were seized with dread. Then were the chieftains of Edom confounded, Trembling seized the mighty ones of Moab; All the dwellers of Canaan melted in fear. (Shemot 15: 14-15)
Amalek was not impressed. Indeed, it approached the other nations and asked them to join to stand against Israel. The other nations refused, arguing that if Egypt and pharaoh had been defeated, what chance did they have. Amalek replied – we will engage them first. If they defeat us, you need not be involved. If we defeat them, then come and join us against them. (Mechilta on Shemot 17:8) Think of the invincible All Blacks. The Lions come and win a game against them, and even Australia now thinks it can win! Neither military nor political ends motivated Amalek. It was an ideological struggle. Amalek stood against spirituality and holiness in the world and sought to attack the bearers of these in the world.
The word for “attack you” is Karecha. The root of the word is Kar meaning cold. It attempted to cool off the other nations, to convince them that Israel was a nation like any other – not greater, not less. In their war against Israel, they succeeded in killing some Israelites (the stragglers, the old, the young and the weak). This may have emboldened the other nations. What saved us is that the Amalekites were defeated in this encounter. Amalek’s main characteristic was arrogant mockery of the spiritual or holy. Unlike other middot, which can be used positively or negatively (our choice), it is difficult to see how this characteristic can be used for good. Such people perceive spiritual truth as a threat to their egoism. Worse, many people follow what they are told unthinkingly. After all, Edmund Burke, the British philosopher said that all that is required for evil to flourish is that good people do nothing. So it is with the message of the Amalekites. All it takes for their message to be propagated is that good people fail to think.
I recently attended a philosophy discussion. It is unsurprising that a group such as this will be radically secular. The discussion around David Hume’s ideas on natural religion was sharp and, at times, defiant and dismissive of a Supreme Being. Yet the following week in the discussion of the ideas of Adam Smith, the same people seemed to have no difficulty in accepting an invisible hand that orchestrates market-based relationships. There was no discussion about the disjunction between these two ideas. This is the effect of the ideas propagated by Amalek. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed that Jews living in secular societies – societies in which any religion is not important for a large part of the population – are more likely to become secular themselves. This is what Amalek winning looks like in the modern age. Even though G-D has been with us in Biblical battles, it is not enough to hope that He will be with us in this one. We need to play our part. We need to choose a Torah life. Rekindling faith is in our hands. Resisting the dominant anti-religious calls is in our hands. Only we can effect spiritual change in the world. If we do this, then G-D will do the rest.
Amalek seeks to turn us from the path that Torah has laid out for us; it does so in a way that has no positive redeeming value in the world; and finally, it does so insidiously through co-opting those who deny G-D and the benefits of a spiritual life. With Rosh Hashanah 5778 approaching, may we pay attention to the Mitzvot that Hashem has placed before us and strive to live a Torah life.