Posts Tagged 'Amalek'

Herd Immunity: Amalek and the Most Vulnerable

The last couple of years have felt like a roller coaster ride. We went from weeks of global fear due to a pandemic to moments of personal salvation and back to national challenges only to elation of the creation of a vaccine and all of this has been accented by precious family time in the safety of our home and longing to be with family and friends outside our bubble. We have gone from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows and back again.

This gives me a have a different insight into the life of the Israelites that we see in B’shalach, this week’s Torah portion. Recently having being freed from slavery in Egypt they find themselves about to die stuck between Pharaoh’s approaching chariots and the sea. And then just like that the sea splits, they escape, and they oppressors drown the bottom of the sea. Continuing the roller coaster ride we go from the high of the Songs by the Sea to the low of their complaining and questioning God about the Manna. If all of this was not enough the portion ends with the lowest of the low, their being routed by the Amalekites. There we read:

The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord present among us or not?” And Amalek came and made war with Israel in Refidim.

Exodus 17:7-8

On this Rashi comments:

Scripture places this section immediately after this preceding verse (they said, “Is the Lord among us or not?”) to imply, “I am ever among you and ready at hand for every thing you may need, and yet you say, “Is the Lord among us or not?” By your lives, I swear that the hound (Amalek) shall come and bite you, and you will cry for Me and then you will know where I am!” A parable: it may be compared to a man who carried his son upon his shoulder, and went out on a journey. The son saw an article and said, “Father, pick up that thing and give it to me”. He gave it to him, and so a second time and so also a third time. They met a certain man to whom the son said, “Have you seen my father anywhere?” Whereupon his father said to him, “Don’t you know where I am?” — He, therefore, cast him off from himself and a hound came and bit him (Midrash Tanchuma, Yitro 3).

Rashi on Exodus 17:8

On one level this parable seems to align with the little boy who cried wolf. As if God is saying, “You complain, well I will give you something to complain about.” On another level it is interesting in that it evokes the image of a young child as the victim. This is a compelling dimension in the context of what we learn about this attack in Deuteronomy. There we read:

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.

Deuteronomy 25:17-18

Amalek was particularly awful because they attacked us from the rear. They targeted the most vulnerable among us, the elderly and the children.

This idea was brought to life for me when I saw this extraordinary footage from a drone of a reindeer cyclone from above:

If you are a young, old, or weak reindeer, you will find yourself at the heart of the herd and it offers you protection. If you are strong you are on the outside protecting the weak. The reindeer protect their rear by creating this cyclone.

To only way to deal with the roller coaster is to circle up. In many ways this is the same thinking this is the rationale behind getting vaccinated. This is the very idea of the strong supporting the weak and creating a cyclone effect of herd immunity.

Subtle Lesson of Midian

In Matot- Masai, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the horribly disturbing genocide of the Midianites. How can we understand Biblical justice  regarding the war against Midian particularly?  After the war the boys and women were brought back as prisoners of war. Moses was upset with the soldiers and orders them to kill the boys and the women who are not virgins. Today we would call that a war crime. All the commentaries I have seen give answers I find troubling to some degree.

I am not sure that there is an answer, by searching for some shred of meaning in this horribly meaningless mass killing got me thinking about a linked topic. Who were these Midianites?  We first read about Midian, their progenitor in Genesis. There we read:

1 And Avraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah.  2 And she bore him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah.  3And Jokshan begot Sheba, and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Asshurim, and Letushim, and Leummim. 4 And the sons of Midian: Ephah, and Epher, and Hanoch, and Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. 5 And Avraham gave all that he had to Isaac. 6 But to the sons of the concubines, that Avraham had, Avraham gave gifts; and he sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country.(Genesis 25:1-6)

Why did Avraham send his children away? It seems heartless.

On one level we see that these war crimes have a long history. It is even more interesting that this story is resonant with another story of scorn and the Avot, patriarchs. We learn in the Gemara:

Timna, the princess of Hor, yearned to join the tribe of  Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, but they did not accept her. So she went to Esav, saying, ‘I had rather be a servant to this people than princess of another nation.’  Esav heeded her request and gave her to his son Eliphas as a concubine. Timna then bore Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? — Because the Avot should not have rejected her for no reason. (Sanhedrin 99b)

Both Keturah and Timna are rejected. We go on to commit genocide again the descents of Midian. There seems to be a sort of justice in that we were almost exterminating in the story of Purim at the hand of Haman the descendant of Amalek.

So while it is obvious that genocide is a bad thing, can we not also learn the more subtle lesson of the effects of what happens when we reject people who are or want to join our tribe? George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While we need to be vigilant to fight meaningless bloodshed globally, we also need to work locally to make a more compassionate and welcoming society. When will we ever learn this lesson?


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