`241 A Primer on Amalek Part 2
Chananya Weissman

November 21, 2022

 

The first time the Jewish people encountered Amalek as a nation was shortly after they left Egypt, before they even received the Torah at Har Sinai. Amalek wasted no time in attacking this beleaguered group of just-freed slaves in the middle of the desert. As soon as Amalek heard – much to their chagrin – that the Jews had somehow escaped Pharaoh's army and crossed the sea, they set out to wage war.

It's reminiscent of how the Jews who somehow survived the Holocaust and somehow made it into “Palestine” past the wicked British were thrust into war against five Arab states bent on annihilating them. They didn't give the Jews a minute to catch their breath.

Although the Torah writes very briefly about this initial battle with Amalek (Shemos 17:8-16 and Devarim 25:17-19), we learn a tremendous amount of information about the nature of Amalek, their methods, what makes us vulnerable to them, and how to defeat them. These insights will be enhanced by the other times we meet Amalek in Tanach, but the most essential information is all packed into these twelve pesukim, as seen through the lens of Chazal.

The story begins as follows: “ויבא עמלק וילחם עם ישראל ברפידם”, “Amalek came and fought with Israel in Refidim.

It seems simple enough on the surface, but this is Torah, not a news report, and every word in infused with many layers of divine teachings. Buried within the very first word – the mere mention that Amalek came – is a wealth of insight into Amalek. After all, the Torah could have simply stated that Amalek did battle with the Jews in Refidim. It did not need to state that Amalek came; obviously they came from their land. So why the extra word?

Chazal offer four insights in Mechilta 17. Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma say that Amalek came because the Jews had separated themselves from Torah. “Because they separated from the words of Torah, the enemy came upon them, for the enemy only comes due to sins and transgressions. Therefore is says 'And Amalek came.'”

(Even though they had not yet received the Torah at Har Sinai, they had received several mitzvos already to study and observe, including Shabbos, in addition to whatever else was already expected of them, especially faith and trust in Hashem.)

This approach is hinted in the Torah by the name of the location, Refidim, which Chazal expound as “rafu yedeihem”, that the Jews slackened their hands from the words of Torah. In the immediately preceding story the Jews quarreled with Moshe and tested Hashem when they needed water, instead of asking Moshe for guidance and turning to Hashem properly. Then, right away, Amalek came.

Rabbi Elazar Hamodai says based on “Amalek came” that “Amalek entered within the protective clouds that surrounded the Jews, stole souls from Israel, and killed them.” He further explains that this is hinted at in Devarim 25:18, where it states that Amalek cut down the Jews who straggled behind the rest of the people and did not fear God.

There is so much here to unpack.

Who was it that did not fear God? Some say this refers to Amalek, for all the other nations of the world were terrified of Israel after hearing about all the miracles in Egypt and by the sea, but Amalek brazenly attacked them. Although Amalek was defeated, they diminished the aura of invincibility surrounding them. As Chazal put it, it was like someone who steps into a bath of boiling water. Even though he gets scalded, he cools it off for everyone else. This is hinted by the word “קרך”, which simply means “happened upon you” but can also mean “cooled you off”.

Others say the reference to not fearing God is directed at the Jews. They had slackened off from Torah and distanced themselves from Hashem. That's why Amalek came and was able to cut down those who straggled behind.

This is a fundamental lesson. When the Jews are lax in Torah and short on faith, they are vulnerable to their enemies, and Amalek in particular waits for such opportunities.

Let's return to Rabbi Elazar's initial words: “Amalek entered within the protective clouds that surrounded the Jews, stole souls from Israel, and killed them”. Does this mean they literally infiltrated the clouds? Perhaps, but unlikely. The clouds protected the Jews from snakes and scorpions in the desert, and also from the projectiles fired at them by the Egyptian army. How would Amalek be able to get through these same clouds and snatch people? The only time Amalek managed to take a hostage was in the second battle with the Jews in the desert, when the clouds had temporarily disbanded following the death of Aharon (we will discuss this episode later).

Therefore, it seems most likely that this statement from Rabbi Elazar Hamodai is metaphorical. Amalek infiltrated the spiritual protection of the Jewish people, as represented by the divine clouds surrounding them, and preyed on Jews who were lax in Torah. This is the primary modus operandi of Amalek against the Jewish people – poisoning their minds with ideas that are antithetical to the Torah – as a prelude to attacking them physically, to which they will now be vulnerable, as we saw from the first part of the Midrash.

The Mechilta continues with another exposition on “ויבא עמלק”, “Amalek came”, from Rabbi Eliezer. He derives from here that Amalek came upon the Jews openly, with their faces revealed. All the other times, Amalek came with subterfuge.

This is another critical insight into the ongoing war against Amalek. Aside from this initial attack by Amalek, their ongoing war against us is done with artifice and deception – always! We will see examples of this from Tanach. Unless we train ourselves to recognize Amalek and his methods, he will catch us unprepared, God forbid.

Rabbi Yossi ben Chalafta teaches a fourth lesson from “קרך”: that Amalek came with a plan. “It is teaching us that he gathered all the nations of the world and said to them, 'Come and assist me against Israel.' They said to him, 'We are unable to stand against them. Pharaoh stood against them and God drowned him and his army in the sea of reeds...how can we stand against them?' He said to them, 'Come and I will give you advice on what to do. If they defeat me, flee for yourselves. And if not, come and help me against Israel...'”

This is yet another vital lesson about Amalek. They instigate the nations of the world against the Jewish people and assuage their fears about starting up with us. Much like the snake lured Chava to eat from the tree, Amalek lures the goyim – most of whom don't need much convincing anyway – that they should annihilate the Jewish people. Not only will it be okay, it's the right thing to do. Amalek shows them how it's done and urges them to follow him.

From one extra word that introduces our first encounter with Amalek, Chazal teach us four vital lessons about Amalek and his methods. As we continue through Tanach we will see these lessons brought to life. And, most importantly, we will see how we face the same Amalek, using the same methods, today.

To be continued.

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