In addition to the regular Torah reading this week, shuls worldwide will fulfill the mitzvah of reading about Amalek, the nation who attacked the Jewish people when they left Egypt. Some say they were the first nation to attack us after we were triumphantly liberated from 210 years of slavery but that is not entirely accurate. The first nation to attack us was the Egyptians but they ended up in the Red Sea. Even though the ancient Israelites were geographically distant from Amalek, that nation travelled to the desert for the sole purpose of waging war against us. There are not too many details about Amalek other than them attacking the emerging Jewish nation from behind; they targeted the weak, and the tired and “did not fear G-d.” We only read three verses about Amalek but are told to eradicate every trace of their memory. Why is there such a violent reaction to this nation? It seems out of proportion because after 210 years of slavery in Egypt we are told “do not despise Egypt” because, after all, they hosted us in their country for hundreds of years! So why does Amalek, who attacked the Jewish people just once, become our eternal enemy? What is it about them that warrants such an unforgiving approach?
Amalek attacked a slave nation – downtrodden, beaten, lacking spirit – as they were given a hint of a vision of what they could become. Deep in the mire of continuous, unrelenting labor, where the only thing they could envision was darkness, there was a glimmer of light. The Almighty involved himself in their plight by reaching down and removing the Jewish people from the persecution of Egypt. If the Almighty Himself choose to help this nation, there must be some goal, some objective for doing something that had never occurred before.
The nations of the world were stupefied when hearing about the destruction of the world’s superpower (Egypt) and how the drama of this nascent nation was unfolding. However, one nation was unfazed and even came to battle them even though the newly released Jews were nowhere near Amalek’s territorial borders. Why did they go to such lengths to fight a small, non-combative and helpless nation? A few centuries later a descendent of Amalek named Haman fought the same nation (Purim is the celebration of our victory). What is it about our existence that causes nation of Amalek to go out of their way to destroy us?
Amalek is the nation that attacks the very idea of meaning. The nations of the world realized that their gods were powerless over the G-d who toppled the seemingly all-powerful might of Egypt and they realized something unique and momentous was happening;but Amalek was an anomaly among the nations. Not only did they deny the uniqueness of the hour, it appears that it posed a threat to them because they were willing to travel to the Jewish settlement just to fight-and untimely lose.
We no longer know which people comprise the Amalekite nation but we still deal with many of the negative architypes they established. We all have a bit of Amalek in us; it is the inner voice that squashes a meaningful life change. “You’re on a diet? Yeah , right. How many times have you tried that before and failed? “Are you seriously thinking of working out regularly? The only one who ever from that decision was the owner of the gym you joined last time but never attended.” We might be hanging around with Amalek. When the teacher in an inner city school starts getting through to students and they start to see the beauty, power, and benefits of getting an education, he is the guy in the back of the room who makes a cynical joke telling the inspired students that they are becoming a bunch of nerds no one will want to hang out with.
Amalek is alive and well today. How do people react when people at the office are gossiping and one person says, “gossip’s a bad thing; what benefit are we getting from making fun of him or her?” At best, “mind your own business” is the response; at worst “why don’t you shut up and….” Amalek is the force that mocks goodness and meaning.
Each of us has a personal Amalek. That internal voice that derides, belittles and attacks truth and goodness; our irrational tendency to mock people who act morally, to be cynical when we see altruism, to doubt our own or other’s sincerity – these are the modern day Amalekites. They wage a lethal war with our soul. These thoughts don’t require a passport to enter us and if we don’t consciously work to eliminate them, we become cynics who sabotage every attempt to improve ourselves.
How do we combat Amalek today? We take direction from the final reading read in this week’s Torah reading: …obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget! How can we obliterate Amalek? Don’t attempt to argue with your internal cynical voice-or your friend’s sarcastic/cynical voice- because it won’t work. The most logical and sound arguments can be deflected with his quick one-liners – “Get real!”, “Who are you kidding?” or “I never realized you were so holy that you started attending synagogue lately.”
This last example is based on something I personally experienced in college. I was not a shul goer but found an old endearing shul in Harlem that students used to attend to keep it alive. The chemistry of the old Rabbi with his thick Yiddish accent and the eclectic group who ended up there ranging from old timers to college students, made for a pleasurable and meaningful experience. I ran into an old high school friend on campus who had recently transferred, and told him about my experience with the old shul. He said, “Are you becoming religious or something? Are you seriously going to shul? Give me a break…you; really?” I was getting something out of that little shul and its warmth but his words were like a splash of cold water on my face. He presented no argument, no logic, no conversation, just mockery. When I think back on that story, I clearly realize that a sarcastic taunt can dismiss the most inspiring, uplifting, and profound moment of spiritual awakening or any good action that presents the possibility for an upgrade in life.
Next time your cynical Amalekite gets your attention, beat him at his own game: Do good things because it’s the right thing to do. Be kind (and even) forgiving someone because that’s who you are-or it is the person you are trying to be. Become your own hero by having the conviction to either ignore or fight some of your inner demons. Release your captured soul and kill the Amalekite thought, talk, or action that seeks to destroy you by relegating you to live a life of mediocrity.