Parashat Ki Tetse – Amalek and the Oppression of the Disadvantaged

וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ׳לֹהִים

Parashat Ki Tetse represents the bulk of the laws and commandments of Sefer Devarim, containing 74 out of the 613 commandments in the Torah. These laws are capped by a review of the attack on Bnei Yisrael by Amalek and the commandment to wipe them out from Shemot 17:8-16 (Devarim 25:17-19).

(17) Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth from Egypt; (18) how they met you by the way, and cut down the weak that were straggling behind, when you were tired and weary, and you did not fear God. (19) And it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens; you shall not forget.

While this formulation of “They attacked you, you must fight them” is fairly straightforward, at its center is a line that is not entirely clear. The phrase “and did not fear God,” “וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ׳לֹהִים,” could be referring to either Amalek or Bnei Yisrael. Most commentators have understood it to be referring to Amalek, as an additional explanation of why they are evil, or perhaps as an explanation as to why they attacked Bnei Yisrael. However, The Hizkuni brings a midrash from the Mekhilta suggesting that instead the phrase is part of the description of Bnei Yisrael, attached to “when you were tired and weary.” This seems somewhat strange, but taking a closer look both at our passage from Devarim 25 and the parallel passage from Shemot 17 will show that it actually is very fitting, and that this may change not only the way we understand its connection to the laws that precede it, and their implications for our lives today.

The passage from Sefer Devarim can be broken down into two rather even halves[1]. Verses 17-18, containing 23 words, describe the attack by Amalek. Verse 19, with 24 words, describes the commandment to Bnei Yisrael to eradicate Amalek in the future. These two halves mirror each other in their structure. The first half starts with “Remember,” and the second half ends with “you shall not forget.” The first half emphasizes that Amalek attacked Bnei Yisrael when they were “on the way,” while the second half states that Bnei Yisrael shall eradicate the memory of Amalek only once they are in the land that ‘א has given them for an inheritance. The first half states that Bnei Yisrael were attacked when they were “tired and weary,” and they are commanded to go to war with Amalek once “the Lord your God has given you rest.” Finally, the commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens,” to the last child, responds to the way Amalek “cut down the weak that were straggling behind.” This type of mirror structure is very common is passages in the Torah, and understanding “and did not fear God” as referring to Bnei Yisrael makes it fit much better.[2] It also identifies their lack of fear of God as part of what made Bnei Yisrael vulnerable to Amalek in the desert, which helps explain an odd occurrence in the passage from Shemot.

The passage in Shemot goes into much greater detail when discussing the original battle between Amalek and Bnei Yisrael. It summarizes the initial attack simply as “And Amalek came, and made war with Yisrael in Rephidim” (Shemot 17:8), and then jumps into a description of Bnei Yisrael’s response that is totally lacking in the passage from Devarim.

(9) And Moshe said to Yehoshua: ‘Choose men for us, and go out and make war on Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God (אֱ׳לֹהִים) in my hand.’ (10) So Yehoshua did as Moshe had said to him, and fought with Amalek; and Moshe, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. (11) And it was that when Moshe held up his hand Israel prevailed; and when he rested his hand, Amalek prevailed. (12) But Moshe’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat upon it; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. (13) And Yehoshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Shemot 17:8-14)

This passage lacks the emphasis on the weakness of Bnei Yisrael found in the passage from Devarim. The sole reminder of it is the odd dependence of the Israelite warriors on Moshe’s raising his hand. This becomes a little clearer upon realizing that it is not Moshe’s hand that is important, for two verses earlier the Torah goes out of its way to say that Moshe’s hand, about to be raised and rested, will be holding the staff of God. Moshe would raise this staff and the people would be able to see it and it would remind them of ‘א who had taken them out of Egypt and split the sea before them and they would be emboldened[3]. Integrating this with the passage from Devarim, this would indicate that Bnei Yisrael’s weakness, which was a function of their being tired and weary and not fearing God (אֱ׳לֹהִים), was alleviated when they were emboldened by seeing the staff of God (אֱ׳לֹהִים) and all it represented.

The idea that Bnei Yisrael “did not fear God” is not mentioned at the end of Shemot 17, but it fits quite well in context. Shemot 17 is the end of the whole sequence stretching from just after the Israelites left Egypt until Yitro’s appearance at Har Sinai. The first half of the sequence is the miraculous lead up to the splitting of the sea, and the second half consists mainly of Bnei Yisrael complaining about not having food or water. The transition from the first half to the second is somewhat startling, as the narrative of the splitting of the sea ends with the statement that “the people feared the Lord” (Shemot 14:31), a significant step up from the way that “the people feared” Paroah (14:10) at the beginning of the narrative. Then all of a sudden they’re complaining, and can’t follow the rules ‘א gives them regarding the manna that falls from heaven, until finally they exclaim, “Is ‘א in our midst or not?” (Shemot 17:7) It’s not incredibly clear from the text where this comes from, but all of this comes right before they are attacked by Amalek where, according to our reading, Bnei Yisrael already “did not fear God.” Thus the reason for all of the complaining was that the people “did not fear God”. This leads to the question of just why it is that the fear of ‘א explicitly mentioned in Shemot 14:31 disappeared, but that is beyond the scope of this composition[4] (I discuss it at some length here). Thus, having struggled with a lack of food, water, and fear of God, the people were “tired and weary and did not fear God” (Devarim 25:18), when Amalek attacked (Shemot 17:8; Devarim 25:17).

Returning to the passage in Sefer Devarim, it’s important to take a minute to note its context. It caps the main law code of Sefer Devarim, coming at the end of a section of largely interpersonal laws beginning in 21:10. Examination of these laws shows that the majority of them share a common theme, not only with each other, but also with the passage dealing with Amalek. Most of these laws deal with not just simple interpersonal laws, but with the laws governing how Bnei Yisrael should interact with those in a position of weakness. This includes captives (21:10-14), children (21:15-17, 18-21), disliked wives (21:15-17, 22:13-21), the dead (21:22-23), foreigners (23:4-9), escaped slaves (23:16-17), widows (24:17-18), and others. With this in mind, it’s obvious that perhaps the main difference between the Amalek passage in Shemot and the one in Devarim is that in the Devarim passage Bnei Yisrael are specifically depicted as being in a position of weakness. The Torah specifically says that Bnei Yisrael “weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Shemot 17:14), while when Amalek attacked Bnei Yisrael they “cut down the weak that were straggling behind” (Devarim 25:18). In this way the Torah likens anyone who oppresses those they have power over to Amalek attacking the Israelites, just out of slavery and floundering in the wilderness (minimally in regard to the preceding laws, more probably as a general statement).

At this point, it’s worth taking an aside to discuss the meaning of the phrase “Fear of God.” It’s a phrase with a long history both in and beyond the biblical texts. In modern contexts it is often understood as “reverence,” or “awe,” or even as an existential fear of being obliterated by the presence of an Infinite God[5]. In the biblical text, the concept comes up in a variety of contexts. Its original appearances are in Sefer Bereishit, in the narratives surrounding Avraham, and then it shows up throughout various sections of the Torah, including the laws of Vayikra and Devarim. However, it would be hard from all of this to pin down exactly what it means. The closest we can get to a specific definition is found in Shemot 20:17, where Moshe tells the people that ‘א appeared so intimidatingly on Har Sinai “in order that the fear of him may ever be with you, so that you do not go astray.” Essentially, “Fear of God” is way of relating to, or thinking about, ‘א that will cause a person to keep far from sin. It’s not clear what this way is, however. So all we know about a group that is described as “not fearing God” is that some aspect of the way they think about or relate to ‘א is leading them to transgress the Law, or be more inclined to, which fits very well with the complaints and rebellions leading up to Amalek’s attack in Shemot 17.

This understanding needs to be shaded back into our reading of the Amalek passage in Sefer Devarim. Part of the weakness of Bnei Yisrael at that time was that they “did not fear God” (Devarim 25:18). The exact way in which this is a weakness is not completely clear, but it could certainly be understood as meaning that the Israelites had thought ‘א was not with them (Shemot 17:7), or that being “א’s Nation” while lacking fear of ‘א, was causing confusion and crisis within them (16:2-3; 17:2-3). Certainly such things are true in our own time. Most people struggle, or have struggled, with faith and doubt and performance of the Law at some point in their lives. In a religious community, people with religious struggles are automatically in a position of weakness. They are by their very thoughts made outsiders. Where Bnei Yisrael had Moshe’s staff as a reminder of ‘א’s connection with them, and the miracles they had seen with their own eyes, today we have nothing of the sort. Faith and doubt are a much more meaningful struggle today than they were in the times of the Torah, and that’s a good thing, but they are also harder. Rather than reinforcing this difficulty and pushing away people who struggle with these concepts, we need to draw them close and make them feel loved. Instead of seeing their struggles as a cause for castigation and estrangement, we should see them as an opportunity to embrace and raise up those in a position of weakness in our communities.

 

[1] I am indebted for this analysis to this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] Attaching it to Bnei Yisrael rather than Amalek also solve some linguistic issues as well. For more, see R’ Elchanan Samet, Op cit.

[3] See Rashbam’s commentary ad loc.

[4] One could argue that the suffering and the complaining of the desert journey caused them to lose their fear of God, but I’m not sure it’s that important of a difference.

[5] Rav Soloveitchik, “And From There You Shall Seek”.

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