Parshat B’Shalach

Torah Reading for Week of February 1-February 7, 2009

“The Terrifying and Mystifying Name of Amalek”

by Rabbi Elijah J. Schochet, PhD
AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics

The Torah portion of B’shalach concludes with a depiction of Amalek’s ruthless genocidal attack upon the weary and bedraggled children of Israel following their liberation from Egypt. Amalek is vanquished in this particular encounter. Hashem’s personal intervention via the inspirational specter of Moshe’s uplifted arms enables the Israelites to emerge victorious in their battle against a vastly superior adversary.

However, we are warned the war is not over. Far from it! This is only the beginning of Israel’s tzoris with the Amalekites. Not only Israel! We are informed that “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” Both Hashem and Israel are to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek.”

Enigmatic, is it not? An eternal confrontation that challenges both Hashem and Israel! What can this possibly mean? Why should not the evil entity of Amalek be eradicated once and for all?

On a surface level, this testifies to a tragic historical reality, the omnipresence of anti-Semitism that is doomed to span the centuries and accompany the Jewish people on their wanderings in the Diaspora. The names may change (from Haman to Hitler to Hamas), but the genocidal agenda of Israel’s implacable foes remains the same…..the destruction of the Jewish people, and today’s Jewish homeland, the State of Israel.

However, there is an even deeper level to the saga of Amalek. True, Amalek appears in our Torah Parshah in the guise of a specific nation, an external enemy threatening Israel. But there is an additional dimension to Amalek that extends far beyond its limited identity as an aggressive nation. In Israel’s sacred texts Amalek comes to also appear as a symbol. Amalek symbolizes the phenomenon of evil itself, and not only the evil that exists outside of us threatening our existence. Amalek also denotes “the enemy within,”–the evil that resides within us. Amalek, the symbol, has undergone a transition from an external to an internal enemy, and a remarkable metamorphosis into a metaphysical, metahistorical and metaphorical phenomenon.

Such is the ominous message of the Zohar, and such is the insight appearing in the teachings of the Alsheikh, Rabbi Zadok haKohen of Lublin, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Opatow, among others. (Apparently, even Pogo would concur, for he too has declared, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”) This enemy challenging our personal moral and ethical value systems is none other than the internal Amalek.

Indeed, the macro experience of Jewish history testifies to the truth that external foes cannot hurt us as deeply as we can hurt ourselves, and that the principle dangers to Jewish survival emanate from within (apathy, ignorance, assimilation) rather than from without (discrimination, anti-Semitism). On a personal micro level, we can all eloquently testify to the fact that the integrity of family and friendship is most frequently undermined by a lack of inner values and commitments.

Yes, Amalek in the guise of a ruthless fourteenth century B.C.E. enemy army constitutes a terrifying entity in this morning’s Torah reading. However, our twenty-first century lives can be equally terrifying…because if we are not careful we can sometimes catch a glimpse of Amalek when we look in the mirror! It is not a pleasant sight!

Sadly, Amalek remains unvanquished because out world remains unredeemed; our world remains unredeemed because within the heart of man, as within the cosmic spheres, evil exists. But the promise of Torah remains intact. Man does possess the power to vanquish Amalek. There will yet come a day when both the cosmos and the human heart will be pure, and then, finally, Amalek will be no more.

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