Parshas Ki Seitzei (5768)
In the end of this week's Torah portion we are commanded never to forget how Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people, tried to destroy us as we left Egypt. G-d had just split the Reed Sea, enabling the Jews to escape from their Egyptians pursuers, and, at the same time, drowning the entire Egyptian army. One could imagine the stir that such news must have caused throughout the civilized world at that time. No nation would have dared to start up with the Jews, seeing that G-d was performing all sorts of amazing miracles in order to protect them. No nation, that is, except Amalek.
The Midrash uses the analogy of a boiling hot bath. The first person that jumps in gets badly burned - but he cools the bath off considerably, making it easier for the next person to jump in. The people of Amalek so badly wanted the Jewish nation to be destroyed, that they were willing to attack the Jews even after having witnessed how G-d's powerful hand had protected them. Amalek was defeated, as the Torah tells us, but their gutsy, almost suicidal, attack on the Jews did a lot to alter the prevalent thinking of the time that the Jews and their G-d were invincible.
In another part of the Torah, we find the greatest non-Jewish prophet, Bilaam, communicating the following prophecy about the nation of Amalek. He says, "Amalek is the first among nations, but its end will be eternal destruction" (Numbers 24:20). The commentaries explain this to mean that in the Messianic Era, when all the nations of the world will come to an understanding and acceptance of the G-d of Israel and His Chosen People - effectively ending anti-semitism and other forms of hatred and bigotry among men - Amalek will stubbornly refuse to see the truth and will be utterly destroyed.
Who is Amalek, and why is he singled out in the Torah as the one nation that G-d promises to completely eradicate from the face of the earth? After all, many other nations throughout our long history have tried to destroy us.
King Solomon writes in his Proverbs (19:25),"Strike the scoffer, and the simpleton grows clever". The Midrash explains that the scoffer, or cynic, that the verse refers to is Amalek, and the simpleton is Yisro (Jethro), Moses' father-in-law. The explanation is as follows: When G-d miraculously rescued the Jews from Egypt and split the Red Sea for them, there were two different reactions to these unbelievable events. Amalek, being a nation of cynics who laugh in the face of all goodness and G-dliness, attempted to destroy the new nation of Israel. Yisro, on the other hand, saw the hieroglyphics on the wall and converted to Judaism!
The Torah relates how Yisro heard about all that G-d had done to save the Jewish nation, and that these events had impacted him greatly. Here was a man who was not resistant to change. On the contrary, Yisro was constantly searching for meaning, grabbing every opportunity he could to grow spiritually.
You'll recall the story that is recorded in the beginning of Exodus where Yisro's daughters are being hounded and threatened by some Midianite shepherds, when along comes Moses and saves the day. The girls come back home and relate to their father how an Egyptian man (Moses grew up in the palace of Pharaoh and must have looked like an Egyptian) had saved them. Yisro asks his daughters how come they didn't invite the man home for a meal. He felt that this stranger who had heroically saved his daughters might be an interesting person to meet. Who knows - maybe the man had something new to teach, which they could benefit from, helping to change them in a positive way.
The root of Amalek's evil, and the reason why that nation is destined for ultimate destruction unlike all the other nations, is because of its deep-rooted cynicism and loathing of anyone or anything positive and spiritual in the world. Picture a classroom with a teacher standing in front of the class trying to instill positive, moral values in the students. There's this one kid, sitting in the back row, forever rolling his eyes and openly mocking everything the teacher says. Clearly, that student has to be removed from the class. Well, it's the same with Amalek. They are a nation that hates good people and goodness itself and who don't want to change, nor do they believe it's even possible to change. And such a nation represents a threat to all the positive and G-dlike values that we, the Jewish people, are trying to instill in ourselves and in the rest of humanity.
In our own lives, we are constantly choosing between two different reactions to the various events and happenings that occur around us. Say, for example, that an interesting speaker is coming to the synagogue on a Sunday evening to talk about his experiences as a Jewish chaplain in the army in World War II. What do we say? "Another speaker! Why don't they stop bothering us already? Didn't we just have that sisterhood brunch three weeks ago?" ... or ... "Honey, let's get a baby sitter. There might be something to this guy!" Two totally opposite reactions.
Sometimes the stakes are much higher. Like when you're on a plane that starts shaking violently and those scary oxygen masks drop down out of nowhere. The pilot instructs everyone to put their heads between their knees as he brings the plane down in an emergency landing. Some people take their cue from Amalek, and they let that potentially disastrous, life-changing ordeal just fly by (no pun intended). All the inherent messages of the fragility and preciousness of life and the need to make the most of the little time we do have are lost on them. Hey, life's a beach and then you die anyway, they say.
But that's a bad attitude. The trick is to heed the call and grow clever from it. To do what Yisro did after hearing about the Exodus. Searching constantly for ways to make ourselves and the world around us better is what life is all about. The catalyst for that change is everywhere - we just have to be receptive to it, to take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way. Life's a whole lot more than a beach - it's what each and every one of us makes of it.