The Battle with Amalek: Faith in the Deserts of our Life
Often people tend to confuse confidence and arrogance. Many understand arrogance as a state of being overly confident in oneself and their abilities. However, on a deeper level, there is absolutely no continuum between confidence and arrogance because they emerge from fundamentally different dispositions embedded within the self. Confidence emerges from internal clarity, and understanding not only one’s capacities, but also one’s role in this world. While there may be times we might experience an individual as arrogant, frequently these feelings emerge from our own internal insecurities. In truth, it is our own insecurities which provide the fuel for arrogance, an enlarging of the ego and self. The arrogant person more often than not is a deeply unhappy person, for their own personality is ungrounded, unaware of their own talents and role to play in this world. Thus, to fill this existential angst, this gap must be filled with the accolades and adorations of others; in essence, this arrogance stems from an unconscious sense that indeed, they are unworthy of respect. The rabbis call this arrogance the insatiable quest for kavod, honor, that which ‘takes one out from the world’. Sadly, our world is full of people racked with self-doubt, and no matter how much money, or clothing, or houses they may own, they are in constant search for more. In truth, what people really seek is the confidence found in self-knowledge and purpose. In theological terms, this is ultimately the core of Emunah, of faith in God, for in this knowledge we find our meaning in this world.
Our parasha grapples with these inner dynamics -the struggle for confidence in ourselves and faith in God. We are confronted by a people – an unsophisticated slave people- who God has chosen. God redeems them from the most powerful nation in the world, and with their own eyes witness Pharaohs ‘horses and chariots’ drown into the sea, an experience so overwhelming that the Talmud states that the maidservant at the Sea had a vision greater than even the greatest prophet, Ezekiel. Moses is leading them on a journey to receive the Torah, a moment which will change not only their destiny, but the trajectory of history itself.
Given these facts, the incessant complaining and fear that grips the people only days after these unfathomable miracles should surprise us. After a three-day sojourn they cannot find potable water and complain to God. “What shall we drink?” they mutter (Exodus 15:24). Only verses later, they wax nostalgically for the ‘fleshpots of Egypt’, wishing they had died in the land of slavery and not starve in the wilderness of scarcity (Exodus 16:3). A few verses later, they again complain, this time that they cannot find water at all. They are so distressed that Moses and Aaron fear they will be killed in a riot (16:5). In each of these cases God responds- with potable water, with quail and the heavenly manna. In the last story of complaining, Moses strikes a flinty rock bringing forth water, as if to say, that with God’s providential hand everything is possible. Yet that place is named Masah U’Merivah, literally “testing and quarreling,” because the people ask, “Is God amongst us or not?” (17:1-7). Did these people forget that a sea split in half before their eyes and the greatest army the world had known was defeated? What explains this sudden shift of perspective?
An insight of the Sochatchover Rebbe, known as the Shem Mishmuel, can give us a perspective. He notes that the Manna of the desert was not simply miraculous food, but spiritual food as well; it was food of the angels (Sermons for year 1913, Parashat Beshalach, s.v. ad matai me’anta). In fact, the rabbis point out that the food was so sublime that it became completely absorbed into the body. In other words, unlike regular food in which a person needs to ‘expel that which is not essential’, the manna had no residual byproducts.
However, the meaning of this angelic bread extends to the people themselves. In truth, this angelic food is the ideal food for them, because in truth they themselves are angelic. Like Moses, who stood before God on Mount Sinai, they all partook of some of Moses’ essence. In short, a spiritual food for a spiritual people.
Yet, later in the Torah they will complain about this same angelic food (Numbers 21:5). On the one level they question the food. Any food that does not have residual byproducts to expel, cannot possibly be any food of substance. If anything, it will cause swelling of the abdomen (read constipation) because the digestive system clearly cannot digest this strange foodstuff.
However, the Sochatchover Rebbe notes that while they seem to have doubts and complaints about food, on a deeper level they really have doubts about themselves and their purpose. People see themselves less than they really are. They are like the animals who eat and defecate. Because they had removed themselves from their Divine source, they could not imagine a different type of existence for themselves. They could not understand that they could live their lives in such an elevated manner that their natural form of sustenance could be the ’food of the angels’. This lack of self-awareness and understanding is what led them to doubt God.
This is understandable. For most of their existence they were reduced to beasts of labor; they had no time to reflect on their lives or a higher meaning for themselves or their families. While God had provided external wonders and miracles attesting to their exalted status, internally they still may have felt less than deserving. Indeed, why did they merit all these great miracles and wonders? Who were they? Why would an infinite God want to relate to such a lowly people? Even if there were momentarily glimpses of clarity, these moments would be eclipsed by the deluge of fear and self-doubt. In a sense, the Jewish people in the initial stages of the desert were waiting for the other proverbial shoe to drop, and it always does. Thus, the moment they face a challenge, they question God. However, on a deeper level they really question themselves. They question their own capacity to be creatures of God, to live a life where God can be their midst. They assume God will surely desert them, not because God is limited, but because God will see them being unworthy themselves. It would have been better to remain the ignorant and unknowing slaves they were in Egypt, rather than struggling with their own capacity for greatness. Who are they to be manna eaters?
Our parashah concludes with the battle against the tribe of Amalek, who unprovoked attack Israel. On one level, Amalek embodies a destructive external tribe that wants to destroy the Jewish people. However, the battle against Amalek can also be read on a deeper psychological level; Amalek is not simply an external nation, but an internal destructive dimension of the human heart.
Amalek comes to fight Israel in a place called Refidim, a contraction of the words rafeh yadayim, or weak hands. Similarly, the people look to Moses’s hands. When they are held high and upwards they prevail, but when he becomes fatigued, ‘his hands become weak’, the people begin to lose. On a psychological level, the raising of the hands inspires confidence, while the lowering of the hands demonstrates a lack of resolve consumed with self-doubt.
Shelomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (Prague, 1550-1619), known for his Biblical commentary Keli Yakar writes that as long as their ‘hearts were whole with God’ and that people were ‘at peace with one another’, Amalek would have never deigned to attack. However, the moment there was doubt in God and internal bickering, Amalek saw their chance and attacked Israel. Rashi (Exodus 17:8) brings 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 [to the ground] and a dog came and bit him
Similarly, Amalek comes at the moment the people say, “Is God with us or not?” At that very moment, they are ‘cast to the ground’ and vulnerable to the dog (Amalek). Amalek is a destructive force, but only becomes so because the people lack the confidence to realize their own strength, that God is in their midst. They forget upon whose shoulders they sit; they forget their father and therefore forget who they really are. Faith is not simply the capacity to believe in Divine providence, but also the capacity to see one deserving of that Divine providence. On numerous occasions, God ‘lifted them on His shoulders’, but the people failed to remember the lessons, and suffered because of it.
In our lives, we need to have faith. Faith in not only what is above, but also that what is above is also within. Do we see ourselves as children of God eating angelic manna, or do we experience ourself cut off from any greater transcendent force, no different than the animals around us? Ultimately, if we commit ourselves to have faith in God, we will also be led to have faith in ourselves and our potential, and we will have the confidence to face the daily challenges in the deserts of our own lives. With God’s blessings, we pray we will receive the confidence an internal equanimity to confront life’s challenges.
 To be sure, this is adapting some implications of his thought, but I am not summarizing the teaching, which is garbed in Chasidic and Kabbalistic concepts.