Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“On the Road Again” Parashat Ki Tetze 5781

Parashat Ki Tetze concludes with a directive to utterly destroy the nation of Amalek, who attacked the Jewish People soon after the Egyptian exodus. Amalek is seen as our archenemy such that the two nations cannot simultaneously inhabit the same earth. We must always remember their actions. To this end, we read this directive each year on the Shabbat before Purim, as the wicked Haman was a direct descendant of Agag, King of Amalek.

The commandment to blot out Amalek is preceded by a short description of the their attack forty years earlier [Devarim 25:17-18]: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, after you left Egypt, how, undeterred by fear of G-d, he surprised you on the way, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” A sharp eye will notice that the Hebrew word “on the way (ba’derech)” is used twice in the Torah’s description while a sharper eye will notice that in both of these instances, the word contributes no new information. The Torah could just as easily have stated “Remember what Amalek did after you left Egypt… he surprised you when you were famished and weary” without using the word “on the way” even once. What does the word come to add? Further, if we look back at the story of Amalek’s assault as it transpired, we can clearly see that the Jewish People were not on the road [Shemot 17:8]: “Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.” The Jewish People were encamped at Rephidim[1] – it was Amalek who “came” from the road[2]. What, then, is the Torah stressing when it twice reminds us that we were “on the road again”?

The commandment to obliterate Amalek is not the only instance in Parashat Ki Tetze where the word “on the road” is used. Two chapters earlier, the Torah delineates who may and may not join the Jewish People. Two nations who are forever barred from converting to Judaism are the nations of Amon and Moab. The Torah provides justification for this prohibition [Devarim 23:5]: “Because they did not meet you with food and water on the way (ba’derech) after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-Naharaim, to curse you.” Before we continue, some historical background is required. Amon and Moab were the sons of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. They were born from incestuous relations that Lot had with his two daughters, who were convinced that the world had been destroyed and that the only way to repopulate it was through their father. Amon and Moab lived in the Transjordan, sharing a common border. Amon lived to the north and Moab to the south[3]. The circuitous path that the Jewish People took from Egypt to the Land of Israel eventually put them to the east of Amon and Moab such that the most direct path to Israel would cut through their land. It is unclear whether the Jewish People passed through Amon and Moab or merely skirted their borders. The Torah does not describe the incident at all. What the Torah does describe at length is Moab’s attempt to destroy the Jewish people by hiring the services of the prophet Balaam. Balaam tries three times to curse the Jewish People and each time he ends up blessing them. Balaam strikes gold in his parting advice to the Moabites, telling them that G-d detests sexual misconduct. The Moabites capitalize on this nugget and send nubile women to the Jewish camp to seduce the Jewish men. The Jews fall for the honey trap and end up worshipping Moabite gods. G-d is furious and He sends a plague that kills seventy-five thousand people.

We require one additional piece of halachic background before we can press on. The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot [87a] teaches that the prohibition of converting Amonites and Moabites refers only to men. Amonite and Moabite women are free to marry Jewish men. The Talmud brings a logical reason for this caveat: The Torah states that the reason that Amon and Moab are excluded is because they did not “meet you with food and water on the way after you left Egypt”. Noting that it is the men who should be carrying heavy jugs of water and backpacks of food, then it should be only the men who are banished from joining the Jewish People.

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, who served as the Rabbi of Prague in the early seventeenth century, has great problems understanding why the prohibition extends only to Amonite men. Writing in the “Kli Yakar”, Rabbi Luntschitz cannot get his head around how the Torah would premise a prohibition on an action that it never actually describes. And even if the withholding of bread and water was explicitly described in the Torah, why would that be a reason to prevent acceptance into the Jewish faith? Nations that have committed far worse acts are still welcome into the club – the Torah explicitly welcomes Egyptians even though they enslaved us and through our babies into the sea. It would seem far more logical to say that as it was the Moabite women who seduced the Jewish men, it should be the women, rather than the men, who are punished. Rabbi Luntschitz suggests that the actual cause of the prohibition was indeed the seduction and ensuing sedition of the Moabite women. Nevertheless, the reason the women were so successful was because the men did not give the Jewish People food and drink. The only food to be had was at the lavish meal served at the Moabite House of Worship. The Jewish men were famished and their throats were parched. And the waitresses were easy on the eyes. So what if they had to tip their hats to Ba’al at the end of the meal… This was precisely the plan of the Moabites and so while the seduction was performed by the women, the planning was performed by the men. For this reason, the men, and not the women, suffered the consequences[4].

Business and warfare require two different types of thinking: strategic and tactical. Shane Parrish, CEO of Farnam Street, writes, “Strategy is an overarching plan or set of goals. Changing strategies is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier – it can be done but not quickly. Tactics are the specific actions or steps you undertake to accomplish your strategy”. Strategic thinking and tactical thinking are both necessary. Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, writing in “The Art of War”, asserts “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” The reason that the Jewish men became entangled in the Moabite honey trap is because they thought tactically and not strategically. They did not recognize the Moabite strategy and so they did not pre-emptively act to counter it. The reason Jewish men could not think strategically was because they were “on the way (ba’derech)”. Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, explains that when scripture states that Amon and Moab did not meet you with food and water “on the way”, it means “when you were in a state of exhaustion”. When the Jewish People passed through Amon and Moab, they were only a few miles from the Land of Israel. They were exhausted from their forty years of wandering in the desert. Precisely because of this exhaustion, the Moabite strategy remained an enigma. When Amalek attacked forty years earlier, the Jewish People suffered a different kind of exhaustion, the exhaustion experienced by a nation that has spent the last two centuries in bondage. They knew Amalek was out there waiting but they were just too tired to implement any kind of strategy. Amalek and Moab capitalized on their exhaustion.

The Torah commands us to constantly remember. We must remember not only the sinister Amalek – we must always remember how our exhaustion nearly ended the Jewish experiment one week after it began. The Jewish People cannot afford exhaustion. We cannot exist by putting out the next fire. We must think clearly and strategically. After two thousand years of wandering, we are finally home again. We must stop behaving as if we are still on the road.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] See Shemot [17:1].

[2] A water shortage had incited a rebellion and in response, Moshe hit a boulder with his stick, water gushed forward, the nation drank and the rebellion was quelled. According to Rabbi Nir Weinberg, rabbi of Hazorim, the reason Amalek attacked was to wrest control of the new water resources.

[3] The modern city of Amman, Jordan, known in Hebrew as “Rabat (bnei) Amon”, likely lies in Amon.

[4] The Kli Yakar finishes his explanation by saying “This explanation is truly ‘yakar (dear)’ in that it addresses all of the problems far better than any other explanation to date”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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