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Torah Commentary
B'shalach (February 11, 2017)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

Rather than being buried in the dustbin of history, Amalek has become synonymous with all that stands in opposition to Judaism’s core values: truth, righteousness, justice and courage. In fact, Amalek has come to represent the embodiment of evil, and every so often, a “new Amalek” emerges to challenge us. This has become a recurring motif of Jewish history.

At the end of Parashat B’shalach we are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek. This command is antithetical to Judaism’s emphasis on memory and remembering. Only when we recall Amalek later in the Torah, in Parashat Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), which we will not read until mid-September this year, do we learn what Amalek did to earn such a severe verdict. The Amalekites attached the rear flank of the Israelites as they were departing from Egypt. Unprovoked, they slaughtered the slowest: the children, the frail and the elderly. This has a familiar echo today and may indeed be one of the earliest recorded instances of the intentional murder of innocent civilians. The Israelite victory over Amalek constitutes their first post-liberation war for survival. Their military success depends on the ability of Moses to keep his hands raised, a curious requirement for victory.

In recounting the story of our historic liberation and redemption, the Book of Exodus forever remains a “work in progress.” Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi under the British Mandate, asserted: “The Exodus has no end and no limit. The original liberation is one sunburst in a continuum; man’s possibilities can never be exhausted.” It is a sweeping narrative, all-encompassing and ever-transforming that forever ebbs and flows with the tides of time.

With B’shalach the Israelites begin their 40-year journey. The chapters comprising this parashah contain some of the most familiar and visual scenes of the entire Tanach: God as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, Moses (perhaps resembling Charlton Heston?) raising his staff and climaxing with the monumentally glorious parting of the Red Sea. Each of these is a flash in the continuing reaffirmation of freedom, redemption and covenant. In Exodus 14:30-31 we are told:

Thus the Lord delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses.

The liberation is indeed transformational for those freed from Egypt as well as for we who annually relive the experience in the form of the Passover seder.

Much of the Book of Exodus conveys suffering and frustration, rebellion and disillusionment. Even B’shalach, one of the most festive portions, expresses discontent. Not long after celebrating with the magnificent poetry of the Song of the Sea (which Cantor Lori Corrsin skillfully discussed in her 2008 commentary on B’shalach) and the choreography of Miriam’s Dance, the people “grumbled against Moses.” This was their first in a series of post-liberation constant complaints. Time and time again, the Israelites force Moses into the unenviable position of having to defend God. God becomes the satisfier of physical needs while the Israelites are now a grumbling and quarrelsome people, behaving in a manner befitted spoiled children.

The victory over Amalek empowers the Israelites. Moses becomes the embodiment of strength and success over adversity. It is somewhat curious that there is no mention of the Israelites ever questioning that they would vanquish Amalek in light of how often they questioned Moses regarding sustenance.

Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg asserts that B’shalach is an important transition in the relation between the Israelites and God, as channeled through Moses:

No longer miracles — but song and prayer. As he models prayer, Moses’ hands no longer hold the staff, imperiously outstretched over sky, land and sea. His hands are empty, they quiver beseechingly with the weight of flesh; they create faith in the hearts of the people.

The contemporary Israeli poet Rivka Miriam, known for cleverly enmeshing biblical narratives into her poetry, offers a tender treatment of this scene in And All the People Were Seeing the Sounds:

Then Moses spread his hands
toward them,
veined as if not yet raised to protect them during war,
and the voices came to his hands
and rested on them as on a large canopy
and Moses’ hands were heavy.

I always have thought it ironic that, although our ancestors were told to “blot out” the memory of Amalek, we continue to remember and recall Amalek each time we read this and, of course, on Purim when we recite the M’gillat Esther. Haman is referred to as the Agagite, connecting him to Agag, the king of the Amalekites. We also remember Amalek on Shabbat Zachor, the second of the four special Sabbaths preceding Pesach, when we read Samuel 15:1-23. Here God commands King Saul to avenge the actions of Amalek by destroying humans and animals. Saul, however, cannot carry out this order he believes to be disproportionately cruel to innocents. In a sense, his behavior reflects the antithesis of the Amalekite action. However, he pays dearly for his failure to carry our God’s command. His ethical stance and compassion cost him his kingship.

It is no simple matter to forget a memory. The commandment to “blot out” Amalek then must be understood to imply the total extermination, both physically and historically, of Amalek as punishment for their slaughter of innocents. In contrast to Amalek, now forced off the historical stage, God constantly demonstrates compassion to his people. We testify to the triumph of the Israelites over those who would seek destruction. This is a familiar echo of our unique history.

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