We begin reading Leviticus, the third book of the Torah this week. The main topics revolve around the offerings brought during the times when the Temple in Jerusalem stood (it was destroyed in 70 CE). Although the idea of animal sacrifice is foreign and even repulsive to many people, many lessons can be learned from them. One of the sacrifices was not brought from an animal, it came from flour and was called the Korban Mincha.
When a soul (nefesh) will bring a meal-offering to Hashem, his offering shall be of fine flour; he shall pour oil on it and place frankincense on it. (Lev. 2:1).
Rashi (1040-1105) observes that “soul” is not used with regard to any other voluntary sacrifices and asks why it used here, in the case of the meal (i.e. flour) offering (Korban Mincha).
Who brings a meal offering? A poor person (because he can’t afford anything else). The Almighty say, “I consider it as if he offered his soul. (Rashi, ibid.)
Although we are accustomed to hearing about social and economic programs for the poor, this is only a relatively recent phenomenon of the past century or two. In the ancient and Medieval world, Monarchs and people of power didn’t see helping the poor as part of their job description. The poor man’s Meal Offering is a revolutionary idea in two areas. Both rich and poor stand side by side when coming to the Temple. But in reality, the poor person seems to get a bigger accolade for his offering than his wealthy neighbor. Although the latter might spend $2000 to buy a choice animal, the few dollars spent by the poor person seems to make a greater impact before the Almighty because only the poor person has “offered his soul.” The Meal Offering is a sacrifice in the true sense of the word because the poor man has given up part of his own limited food for a higher purpose. Although the wealthy person’s offering is important, he hasn’t sacrificed his soul.
The following story, told by a holocaust survivor, exemplifies this idea. The man related that he was in the concentration camp, another inmate’s bread ration was stolen. To have one’s ration stolen was a death sentence because that simple crust of bread he received as part of his daily ration kept him from starving to death. What was this poor man to do? He was terrified and heart-broken; how could he survive with nothing to eat? The solution came from a few of the other prisoners. The narrator of this episode and two friends broke off a piece of their own small piece of bread and shared it with their unfortunate inmate. “We saved him,” said the narrator, “but we accomplished more than saving a life; we had a new understanding into what it means to help someone in need.”
“HaShem (G-d) has blessed me, and I have become wealthy. I have shown my appreciation through my support of various Torah institutions. Indeed, I have given away hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past fifty years since I was liberated from Auschwitz. Yet, I must make it clear that nothing comes remotely close to that little crust of bread that I gave to the inmate. This is because all the money that I have given away over the years was money I could spare. I always had more money, but could not spare that piece of bread. It was all I had!”
His concluding words are not only educational but also inspirational in seeing how deep a Jew’s sense of kindness for no ulterior motive is. Giving tzedakah is praiseworthy and enables one, in a tangible way, to be kind to those who don’t share in their good fortune but there is no comparison between one who has the means to give and one who doesn’t – but gives anyway. Such people give more than money – they give their souls!
Next week is Purim, the festival when Jews rejoice at being saved from Haman’s plan of annihilation. According to tradition, Haman, the archetype anti-Semite, was a decedent of the ancient nation of Amalek. As such, when the Torah portion has been completed on Shabbat morning, a second small section is read; it is about the mitzvah to destroy Amalek. Due to numerous population dispersions over the centuries, we don’t know who the decedents of Amalek are today, we read about it to remind us about this nation and why they wanted to destroy us.
Imagine a refugee family leaving traveling through a desert with only the clothes on their backs and a few belongings. Children, tired and weak from the journey, would be especially vulnerable. Imagine terrorists coming from behind and attacking the children.
Amalek came and attacked the weak stragglers fleeing Egypt.
Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt, that he encountered you on the way, and struck those lagging at the rear, when you were tired and exhausted, and he did not fear G-d. (Deuteronomy 25:18)
It seems that Amalek wasn’t simply a nation of cruel people, they were fighting against G-d (they “did not fear God”). The nations were aware of the Ten Plagues, Splitting of the Sea, and other miraculous events and therefore an attack on Jews was by default and attack on G-d.
The Talmud has a novel interpretation on the verse above that Amalek “encountered you on the way” The Hebrew word used for “encounter” is “karcha,” which is related to the Hebrew word kar, meaning “cold.” Amalek sought to cool off the Jews off. Cool off the idea to help underprivileged people or be kind for no reason other than because G-d asked you to do so. He came down a liberated an enslaved people and so forever Jews would have a mandate to emulate G-d and help people who have less than us.
We might not know who Amalek is today but we find the phenomena of might makes right-social Darwinism-and the cruel oppressing the weak as apparent as ever. It is no coincidence that Hitler and Stalin-two of last century’s biggest mass murderers-had a war against Jews. The fact that Amalek lived in a distant land but saw it necessary to travel to the desert to fight a nascent nation who was no threat to them, so too people seek the destruction of the Jewish people even though have a long track record of being not only loyal citizens, but also extremely productive ones that benefit the economy and have no history of every trying to overthrow a government.
Jewish people represent conscience and morality, which means that the world has purpose and meaning; every individual is created in the image of G-d and therefore must be treated with respect. This foundation has allowed us to introduce concepts to the world that have altered the course of humanity. Monotheism, equality for all people, and universal education are just a few of these values that have following our mandate to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
Although we can no longer identify any specific individual or nation as Amalek, we are still obligated to remember them and destroy the Amalek inside us all. It the part of us that doesn’t give, even when we can. It’s the part of us that says were exhausted, when a friend needs us to listen. It’s the part of us that says, “does anything I do really matter…whatever.” It the part of us that mocks someone doing a good deed because we are jealous.
In biblical days, Amalek showed tremendous self-sacrifice to harm the Jews and so did (their likely descendants) the Nazis. With the invasion of Hungary in 1944, Germany needed the railway lines to transport troops and equipment to the battlefront. The Wehrmacht urged Hitler to provide this infusion of desperately-needed supplies but he ignored their warnings and ordered that the rail-lines be used to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to the death camps. That is Amalek; killing of Jews is more important than winning a war.
Amalek reminds us that we have an important message to give to the world. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East yet it is the only country in the world whose right to exist is questioned. It’s not perfect but is responsible for much humanitarian aid as well as technology; why would you want to destroy it? Why did the ancient Amalkites fight the Jews? Why did Hitler care about them? Why did Stalin have a plan for genocide of the Jews (he died shortly before it was able to be carried out)? When a nation is brutal to its citizens as well as those it conquers, it hates the nation that appears to be the opposite.
This year when we read about Amalek, we should be proud of being Jewish and at the same time realize that our obligation to follow our mission to bring the idea of meaning to the world. This is a grand calling but we can accomplish it by bringing it into every the small encounter we have in life.
(Sources: Peninim on the Torah 12th Series, 172-173)
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