Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A thought on Amalek

In this week's Torah portion (Shelach Lecha), the spies return from their journey into Canaan and report negatively on what they saw. There are attempts to explain what exactly was negative about their report (one of my favorites is from I believe the Chafetz Chaim who said it was that they spoke negatively about themselves when they said "we can't do it").

But I wanted to briefly dwell on something that Rashi says at the start of their report. In Numbers 13:28 and 29 the spies mention Amalek twice. In 13:28 they say "moreover we saw Amalek" and in 13:29 they say "Amalek dwell in the Negev".

Rashi says that this second mention of Amalek was an attempt to scare the Israelites, given that they had been attacked by them as they were departing Egypt. Once would have been a sufficient description of what they had seen, but twice implied something more than a factual report. Sewing the seeds of fear, implies Rashi, was wrong.

But hold on - is there more to be said here?

If we fast forward to Deuteronomy 25:17 - we read:

"Remember that which Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt - they attacked your weak ones when you were tired and weary, and did not fear God...[when God defeats your enemies].... erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven - don't forget!"

One of the perplexing questions raised by this commandment is the paradoxical nature of the prohibition to remember to forget Amalek. How can a person remember to forget anything? Isn't it like me telling you not to think of a cat? See, you just thought about a cat.

However, one might also see Deuteronomy 25:17 as a commandment to act in two different ways, depending on the circumstances.

At times when national security isn't guaranteed, (in the Bible's language - when God hasn't defeated Israel's enemies), this verse tells Israel to remember that which Amalek did. In other words, be alert - preoccupy yourself with security.

At times when national security is guaranteed (or in the Bible's language - when God has defeated Israel's enemies) don't think about Amalek. Or perhaps in other words, let yourself be occupied with other, more positive elements of Jewish life.

It was God who told Moses to "scout out the land" (Numbers 13:2). The spies were supposed to recognize their situation as one where they were guaranteed national security. Their report - with its emphasis on the sightings of Amalek - failed to emphasize the positive aspects of the land - and in doing so betrayed a fatal misreading of the situation's true potential.

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