PUBLIC ENEMY 101
Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, a lecturer at Ohr Somayach as well as a law professor at the University of Maryland, recently pointed out how there are many readings and prayers that we recite throughout the year, and just blow right by them. However, at certain points in the year these holy works are highlighted, and are the pinnacle of our service.
Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, a lecturer at Ohr Somayach as well as a law professor at the University of Maryland, recently pointed out how there are many readings and prayers that we recite throughout the year, and just blow right by them. However, at certain points in the year these holy works are highlighted, and are the pinnacle of our service. One example of this is the aleinu prayer. On Rosh Hashanah, this is one of the high points of the holy day's prayer service. Yet, when we recite it during the rest of the year after every prayer service, we just fly through it without much thought. Another example of this is found at the end of Parshat Ki Teitzei, where we are given the mitzvah to not forget what the nation of Amalek did to us. When we read this Torah portion, these nine verses are passed over and treated as any other nine verses in the Torah. However, once a year on the Shabbat before Purim, we have the only Torah reading in which everyone is obligated to hear; the above-mentioned nine verses (see Mishnah Berurah OC 685). What is it that Amalek did to us that led to the only mitzvah of this sort?
The answer lies in this week's Torah portion, where we have the first encounter between the nations of Amalek and Israel. To gain a better understanding, we must begin by pointing out exactly who Amalek was. Amalek was the grandson of the wicked Esau. Out of all of the descendents of Esau, our hatred is targeted the most at Amalek. What was it that this arch enemy of ours did?
Picture it: The Jews had just been enslaved in Egypt for 210 years. After a long struggle between Pharaoh and Moses, which entailed ten horrific plagues, as well as many appeals, Pharaoh finally let the Jewish people go. The Jews exited, and the Egyptians followed. The Jews crossed the Red Sea, and the Egyptians drowned. The Jews had just been through a lot, to say the least. It had been several months, and just when they thought they could rest, there came their long, and better off lost, distant cousin Amalek to give them a hard time. The Torah tells us that, "Amalek encountered you. . .while you were faint and exhausted" (Deuteronomy 25:7). What a disgusting thing to do; hitting someone when they are down. Even the most animalistic of professional boxers would not do that! Hashem had been so closely guarding the Children of Israel from the beginning of their redemption; why was it that now He allowed the nation of Amalek to attack them?
As was previously mentioned, the Jews had just witnessed many open miracles. What was their reaction? They asked Moses, "Is Hashem among us? We want water. Where is it? Did you take us out of Egypt to kill us?" (Exodus 17:3). If Hashem had done so many miracles for them thus far, would it not make sense that He would give them water too? However, even with the open miracles, the Jewish people did not have enough faith to trust in Hashem (We often say, if Hashem still did open miracles today, we would follow every word of the Torah. We see here that even with open miracles, our faith was still lacking). After the complaints about the bitter waters, the next verse relates Amalek's arrival on the scene. Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, tells us that the connection between the two situations was that Hashem was telling us, "you pay no attention when everything is good, but when you feel you really need me, then you come begging for My help."
Rashi goes on to give the parable of a boy who is on his father's shoulders. The boy asks for many things from his father, and the father gives them to him. Then, a few moments later, the boy asks, "Has anyone seen my father?" The father says, "If that's how you are going to be, I will put you down to walk by yourself." Hashem was putting us down to walk by ourselves. A lack of faith led to this eternal struggle between the Jewish nation and Amalek.
After the Jewish people defeated Amalek in war, the verse states, "Hashem will be at war with Amalek for all generations" (ibid. 17:16). We have seen many times throughout history the nation of Amalek rise to power and assault the Jewish people. We saw them at war again with the Jewish people in the book of Samuel. We saw them in the form of the wicked Haman in the Purim story. We saw them in the various tragic pogroms throughout history. Most recently we saw them in the form of Nazi Germany in the 1930's and 40's. When looking at the Holocaust, we often catch ourselves saying, "Where was Hashem? How could this happen?" We consider the Holocaust our "big difficulty" with Judaism, and our excuse for not following the Torah.
Rabbi Avrohom Rockmill, a lecturer at Ohr Somayach in Israel, points out how, if anything, the Holocaust is a proof to the Divinity of the Torah. We are told clearly in the Torah that the Jewish people will be at war with Amalek for all generations, and we see clearly in this week's Torah portion just how cruel that nation is. Unfortunately, we witnessed the truth of this verse in Nazi Germany. So, is our world that grim? The Jewish people will always have this enemy who will spring up throughout time to bring the Jewish people down. Is that it? No! Hashem tells us that, "I will totally obliterate the memory of Amalek" (ibid. 17:14).
When will this happen? Our sages tell us that with the coming of the Mashiach (Messiah), peace will come unto the entire world. Until then, we must remember what it was that allowed Amalek to come in the first place a lack of faith in Hashem. As long as we keep our faith strong, Amalek is powerless against us. When, G- d forbid, Amalek rises, we must remember it is a proof to the Divinity of the Torah. We must also always keep the belief alive that the Mashiach will come, and bring an end to all the evil in the world. As it is written in Maimonides' 13 principles of faith, "I believe with complete faith that the Mashiach will come, and even though he delays, I anticipate his coming more and more every day."
Pinchas Landis, a native Atlantan, is studying at Yeshivat Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem.
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