The Amalek in Us

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, we are given a long list of commandments, many dealing with issues of economic justice and ethical behavior. The portion ends with the vehement exhortation about Amalek:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt–how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Adonai your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

In the narrative of the Torah, Moses is speaking these words as part of his long charge to the Israelites preparing to enter into the land, a speech which is most of the book of Deuteronomy. The reference is to an episode originally recounted in Exodus 17. In that telling, the Amalekites attack the Israelites as they are marching through the desert. Moses charges Joshua to assemble an army to defend the people against Amalek, meanwhile Moses, Aaron and Hur ascend the top of a hill. During the battle, whenever Moses raised his hand, the Torah relates, the Israelites prevailed, and every time he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. When Moses got tired, Aaron and Hur put stones under his arms so his hands would be uplifted, and the Israelites won the battle.

The text goes on to say however that God charges Moses to write a document saying that the memory of Amalek is to be blotted out for all time.

The story in Exodus does not indicate why the strong condemnation of Amalek, especially since the Israelites won the battle. Indeed the identity of Amalek seems incidental to the narrative which focuses on the bit about Moses raising his arms. Rabbinic midrash understands this story to mean not that there was something magical about Moses raising or lowering his arms, but that when his arms were raised the Israelites looked up and were reminded of what it was they were fighting for and of the divine spirit which was in their midst, and when the arms were lowered they forgot all this and lost morale.

Deuteronomy comes to fill in the gap and teach about why Amalek was so strongly condemned–when he attacked, he attacked from the rear, and thus preyed on those you might expect would be at the back of a long march: the aged, the infirm, the young. Amalek thus went after the weakest part of the Israelite community and for this specifically he is ascribed a particular level of cruelty, and is seen as unique among those who attacked the Israelites. And Amalek is sometimes understood to be the paradigmatic enemy of the Jews and is a figure that has reverberated throughout history, from Haman to Hitler.

What if, though, we don’t look outside to find Amalek, but we look inside?

In this season of Elul, we are called upon to do the work of introspection. We must look within ourselves to identify where it is we need to improve, where it is we need to fix what is broken. We all, by virtue of being human, have those things we need to work on. Some of them will be superficial and easy. Others will be deep down and more difficult.

In going after the Israelites, Amalek took the easy route; he went after the proverbial “low hanging fruit.” For this he was condemned. What if, in relation to our own work of heshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) and teshuvah (repentance), we too only go after the low hanging fruit? What if we concentrate only on those parts of ourselves which are easy to fix, and neglect to take on the more difficult tasks? Will we really have created the change we want? Will we truly become new people?

We have to fight against this instinct of ourselves. We need to fight against the motivation to just focus on the superficial, without going after the deep. We need to fight against the tendency to not tackle the hard issues that we know are there. And like the Israelites, if we raise our eyes and remember that we do have this power to change and are supported by those around us and the divine within and without, then we will succeed.

This is what it means to blot out Amalek, during this month of Elul. To blot out the instinct within ourselves that lets us take the easy way out and prevents us from doing the real work of teshuvah we are called upon to do.

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