Enemies without and within

Enemies without and within

Rabbi James Gibson
Rabbi James Gibson

Parshat Beshallach, Exodus 13:17-17:16

“From the frying pan into the fire,” we used to say, going from one trouble to another.

In this week’s Torah portion, our people experience such an amazing salvation at the Sea of Reeds that we remember it twice a day in our prayers by chanting that same words Moses sang: “Who is like You, God, among the celestials? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?”

But right after our escape from the Sea, we are confronted by a people that will become our existential enemy — Amalek. As we read, “Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, ‘Pick some men for us and go out and do battle with Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand.’ Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek. …

“Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. … Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword. God said to Moses: ‘I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. … God will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.’”

But according to modern scholarship, there are no more Amalekites. This has not stopped Jewish leaders of all kinds from designating enemies as “Amalekites” in our own day. According to the Virtual Jewish Library, the “biblical injunction (to confront and destroy Amalek) became so deeply rooted in Jewish thought that many important enemies of Israel were identified as direct descendants of Amalek. Thus the tannaitic aggadah of the first century B.C.E. identifies Amalek with Rome. The most outstanding example is ‘Haman the Agagite,’ who is regarded as a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite king.”

In our day, Nazis, Communists and Islamic radicals have been identified as Amalek.

There is, however, another tradition that says that Amalek lies within each and every one of us. According to this teaching, Amalek is found in our violent, wayward tendencies. We must confront and defeat these without mercy, even as we are not supposed to be merciful toward the people Amalek.

According to Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidism, “No longer a foreign nation, today’s Amalek is an internal enemy. We each have an Amalekite lurking within our very self. … The inner Amalek is unholy cynicism. That little voice inside each of us that derides, belittles and attacks truth and goodness; our irrational tendency to mock people who act morally, to be cynical when we see altruism, to doubt our own or other’s sincerity — these are the modern day Amalekites. They wage a lethal war with our soul.”

According to Breslov Chasidism, “The Amalek that is omnipresent today are the questions and doubts that we have regarding our faith. This includes the uncertainties, confusion and troubles we face when we lack proper direction and advice. When we strengthen ourselves in true faith in God, we overpower the Amalek within.”

We are commanded to confront hatred, cynicism and evil within even as we are taught to confront it in the outside world.

Even as we confront terrorists in Paris, Brussels, Toulouse, Lyon Sarcelles, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, those enemies are of this age and time. If we defeat our internal Amalek, I believe we will have the strength, faith and commitment to defeat any threat by any enemy.

Rabbi James A. Gibson is senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.