Midrash Tanchuma starts innocently enough with the famous religious principle:
“One good deed leads to another. One misdeed leads to another.”
This maxim represents a clear case of cause and effect. For “one sin leads to another” the Midrash sites the example of “Eshet Yefat Toar” the very unusual circumstance in which, literally, in the heat of war, one is allowed to take home a beautiful ‘captive woman’ for the purpose of marriage. (Deuteronomy 21:12)
“And you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and you take her for a wife.”
The Midrash warns that giving in to such passion will lead to everything that immediately follows this verse. Namely, the destruction of your home life and the birth of a rebellious son.
To prove the principle of “One good deed leads to another” the Midrash sites another law in our parsha of sending away the mother bird before taking the eggs or baby birds. (Deuteronomy 21:6)
“If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young”.
For fulfilling this law the Midrash lists all the possible rewards in the subsequent verses. Namely, the building of a new home, a successful harvest, new clothes, marriage, children etc. Why such lofty rewards? Why does all this goodness flow from one seemingly inconsequential act?
Furthermore, sending away the mother bird is also rewarded with long life. The only other commandment in the Torah to merit such a reward is “Honor your father and your mother.”
Perhaps the answer is found in the mystical meaning behind this precept.
The power to change Jewish destiny
Midrash Tanchuma states that the way we carry out this precept stands in stark contrast to the cruelty of a bird the Torah calls “Koreh.”
“Because this “Koreh” bird brings eggs from other birds and sits on them until (the young) emerge from their shells and become fledglings. Then they rise up over it and pluck its wings. When it goes out to fly, it is unable (to do so) because its wings are plucked. So a wild beast or reptile finds it and eats it. And what caused (this bird’s ultimate demise) because it raised eggs that were not its own.”
The Midrash sees the cruelty of the “Koreh” bird as a metaphor for the nations who invaded Judea, burned down the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jews. These nations will be punished for plundering what was not theirs.
One of the commentaries (Be’er He’emorim) quotes a Kabbalistic source, the Zohar, which says that every bird has a guardian angel. These angels complained to G-d that the Torah encourages cruelty to animals by chasing away the mother bird and plundering her nest. G-d asks these angels “why don’t you petition me about my nest (the Temple in Jerusalem) that was plundered and my children who have been exiled?” Both the Midrash and the Zohar imply that the fulfillment of this commandment somehow arouses G-d’s compassion and will hasten our redemption. Now we can understand why there are so many rewards for sending away the mother bird.
Perhaps this mix of insensitivity (of chasing away the mother bird) and compassion (in not letting her see that her eggs or babies are being taken) reflects the way we perceive G-d’s actions. Sometimes the punishment we need may seem cruel and insensitive.
Interestingly enough, the name of the bird, “Koreh” is related to a word which appears in another mysterious section at the very end of this Parsha: A verse which the majority of this Parsha’s Midrash Tanchuma dwells on: (Deuteronomy 25:17-18)
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how they happened upon you along the way and killed all the stragglers in the back of the camp when you were famished and weary and not fearing G-d.”
In Hebrew “happened upon you” (korcha) is similar to the bird “Koreh.”
Is the world governed by cause and effect or by chance?
We just finished saying that everything happens for a reason. So how can we theologically explain our arch-enemy “Amalek” who attacked us without reason in the desert. Amalek shows up again in the Book of Samuel when King Saul was supposed to finish them off in a war, but didn’t. They surface again in the form of the evil Haman in the Book of Esther who ordered the destruction of every Jew in the world. Indeed, Rabbinic sources see the same characteristic in Hitler. Which corroborates what we say in the Passover Haggada: “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.”
How do we cope with this seemingly random force of evil always lurking in the shadows?
In fact, the Midrash describes the sin which brought about the attack from Amalek upon “the stragglers in the back of the camp”. It was a desire for predictability in our relationship with G-d – to a fault:
… R. Nehemiah said: They said: ‘If G-d furnishes us with our food like a king who is living in the same province (as his subjects) so he makes sure the province lacks nothing at all, we will serve G-d, but if not, we will revolt against him.’ The Rabbis said: They said: ‘G-d knows what we are thinking, so if G-d gives us what we want (without even asking) we will serve him; but if not, we will revolt.“
Sounds like socialism on steroids. No ups and downs. No surprise attacks from Amalek. Just a shopping mall full of every item we think we want.
Clashing philosophies: Shabbat vs Amalek
Midrash Tanchuma asks a question that is probably not keeping you up at night. The very same phrase of remembrance, “Zachor,” is used in reference to Shabbat “Remember to keep the Shabbat holy” – ) and with Amalek “Remember what Amalek did to you.”
Perhaps the Midrash is asking, which point of view we should adopt. Shabbat represents purposeful directed, cognizant, faith and gratitude to G-d. Shabbat also serves as a reminder that G-d is directing our affairs. We need to refrain from working on Shabbat because G-d created the world and G-d created the day of rest. G-d is the source of all goodness and G-d will provide for us.
At the same time, we are supposed to remember what Amalek did to us. Their seemingly random act of murder reminds us of our vulnerability. The world is full of evil. There is a lurking enemy that arises against us “in every generation” as we mention in the Haggadah of Passover.
The Midrash is asking how do you do both? How do you maintain both outlooks on the world?
The Midrash answers with a parable:
“A king made a banquet and invited guests. A tray full of delicacies was brought before him. He said, ‘I am reminded of my friends’ (who are loyal to me). When the tray was empty , he said, ‘I am reminded of my enemies (who are out to destroy me). His friends said to him, “You are reminded of both? He (The king) said to them, “This one I mentioned over a tray full of all good things and that one I mentioned over an empty tray.”
We should not lessen our faith in G-d as reflected in Shabbat because of the existence of Amalek. Yet we should never forget that Amalek is part of life. However, the ultimate resolution of this conundrum is to check the pay stub (T’lush in Hebrew) of Amalek. Under “Employer” it lists G-d’s name and address.
Whose team is Amalek on anyways
The Midrash tackles this question directly in the following parable:
A king had a vineyard enclosed with a fence in which he put a dog trained to bite intruders. The king said: “Whom ever breaks through the fence will be bitten by the dog.” One day the king’s son came and broke through the fence. The dog bit him. Whenever the king wanted to remind his son of his transgression, he would say to him: “Remember how the dog bit you?” Similarly, whenever the Holy One wants to bring to mind the sin of Israel in Rephidim when they said (Exodus: 17:7) “Is G-d present among us or not?,” G-d says to them ( Deuteronomy 25:17): “Remember what Amalek did to you.”
The juxtaposition of the 2 verses in Exodus says it all. One verse says that the Jews quarreled with G-d. Even after all the miracles G-d performed for them they questioned: “Is G-d present among us or not?” Exodus 17:7. The very next verse says “Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.”
Midrash Tanchuma seems to be saying there’s no random attacks. There are no lurking enemies – just cause and effect as we started out with. Sending away the mother bird can bring much blessing. Taking a beautiful woman captive in war can bring much misery. How does G-d let us know that we need a course correction? How do we grow from adversity? For that we have special agent Amalek. He takes on all kinds of guises from self doubt to a beautiful woman in the theatre of war. He was hired to destroy the Temple and exile the Jewish People. However, we can beat him by having faith in G-d and by following the Torah. Right down to what Midrash Tanchuma described in last week’s Parsha as the easiest of the precepts of the Torah – sending away the mother bird before taking the eggs or the baby birds.