Ki Teze: A Dual Story

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

In studying the biblical text it is crucial to pay attention not only to the meaning of the text but to its form and structure; not just to what the Torah says, but how it says it. This basic principle allows us to derive much Jewish law from the juxtaposition of seemingly unconnected laws.

It is the juxtaposition of the law of tzitzit to the prohibition of sha’atnez (Devarim 22:11 and 12) that teaches that the mitzvah of tzitzit overrides the prohibition of sha’atnez and one may, and hence must, put woolen tzitzit on a linen garment.

Not only in the area of law is context important but even, perhaps more so, in studying the narratives of the Torah.

In two places, the Torah describes our eternal battle with Amalek. In parshat Beshalach, the battle with Amalek is part of the narrative detailing our exodus from Egypt. Having crossed the sea, the Jewish people had finally rid themselves of their Egyptian taskmasters. As they began their journey to Sinai, a new set of challenges faced the nascent nation. The concerns of the people turned to issues of food and drink. Little did they think war was in the offing. While the Jews were complaining about the lack of water, Amalek was plotting its attack[1].

Yet this was a war that required very little fighting. “And Moshe said to Yehoshua: ‘Choose people and do battle with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of G-d in my hand’” (Shemot 17:9). While presumably a makeshift army was quickly put together, it does seem that they actually had to battle. “And it was when Moshe raised his hands, the Jewish people would win” (Shemot 17:11). Is it Moshe’s hands that make [success in] war or break [success in] war? Rather, whenever Israel would look upward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would prevail; and if not, they would fall” (Rosh Hashanah 29a). Look upward they did, and thus, there was no need for actual battle[2].

The battle with Amalek was meant to teach the Jewish people that if they follow G-d, they have nothing to fear. The miraculous events of the Exodus, the splitting of sea and the battle with Amalek were all meant to impress upon the Jews, and the nations of the world, that there is one G-d who is Master of the Universe. Follow His mitzvot and our destiny will be assured.

However, 40 years later the message of the (same) Amalek story is a very different one. It is not a narrative of events, but rather a command to remember what Amalek did to us “on the path out of Egypt” and an exhortation for the Jewish people to do actual battle against Amalek. Whereas in parshat Beshalach, it would be G-d who would defeat Amalek, here it is the people of Israel who must act.

This command “to wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven” (Devarim 25:19) follows on the heels of the prohibition of having false weights, an ethical violation so severe the Torah refers to the one who does so as “an abomination of G-d your Lord, all who do this and all who act corruptly” (Devarim 25:16). And those who abide by these laws are promised “that your days shall be lengthened” (Devarim 25:15).

The proximity of the requirement for honesty in our business dealings and the details of the war with Amalek did not escape the attention of the rabbis. “If one lies in weights and measures, then fear the attack of the enemy,” and “It is due to the sins of false measurements that Amalek comes” are two of the rabbinic responses to this juxtaposition.

Amalek is no longer a symbol of the Jews defeating our enemies, but of what awaits those whose ethical practices are wanting. This need not be viewed as punishment. It is a rule of history that has proven itself time and time again. Societies crumble from within, allowing foreign conquerors to take over. Once a nation’s moral resolve is weakened, it is ripe for defeat.

It was Amalek who attacked unprovoked from behind, trying to hit at our weak points. One who takes advantage of the vulnerable customer to sell less than he claims to be selling is attacking the weak and defenceless. If we, G-d forbid, act like Amalek we might ourselves become Amalek’s victims.

The war with Amalek is an ongoing one, “from generation to generation” (Shemot 17:16). The key to victory lies neither in our military strength nor our technical prowess, important as they may be, but rather through our moral strength in creating a just society in which we can feel the presence of G-d in our midst.

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[1] Some commentaries claim that Amalek’s attack was a punishment for the complaints of the Jewish people. After all they had witnessed, how could they display such a lack of faith in G-d? At the same time, their miraculous victory would indicate that there was no divine displeasure with the people. What other reasonable response is there when in a desert with no water? This is especially so when one considers that we are dealing with a group of slaves who were cajoled to leave Egypt for a much better life. It seems that the Torah is hinting at a double, even if somewhat contradictory, message. For the Jews of the desert, we can understand the complaints. But the Torah was written not for them, but for us. How many of our complaints are truly legitimate?

[2] It is unlikely in the extreme that the Torah would have neglected to mention such a battle had it occurred, along with the number of casualties, as it does in so many other instances. The silence of the Torah speaks volumes.