And it came to pass, when Moshe raised up his hands, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hands, Amalek prevailed. (Shmot 17)
When Moshe’s hands were raised in prayer…(Targum Yonatan)
The behavior of God and Israel in the battle with Amalek teaches us about God and ourselves.
The defeat of Amalek depends upon prayer. One could say that the religious response to any adversity should be praying to God. Yet this case is different; prayer is showcased as the determining factor of the outcome of the battle.
Why? What is it about Amalek that requires prayer in response to its threat?
Before we analyze Amalek, we need to understand some basic assumptions about prayer and those who choose to pray.
Prayer is predicated upon freedom. This is true on multiple levels.
- Prayer is an activity undertaken freely.
- If events are not predetermined then there is room for hope. The unexpected may happen, even if it never happened before.
- Reality for those who pray is experienced as not determined. Prayer has the possibility to change the outcome of events.
- Much has been written about human free will, which the phenomenon of prayer assumes, but prayer also assumes that God has free will.
The Torah does not provide us with much empirical data, but does provide some clues which can help us paint a portrait of Amalek.
- “And they happened upon you by the road.” (Dvarim 25:18) Amalek is associated with chance. In a world in which occurrences are random, there is no meaning.
- There is no cult with which Amalek is associated. (Unlike the Ba’al and Ashtoret of Cana’an or Kemosh of Moav). We do not know that they worship any god.
- In Megillat Esther, Haman casts a lot to determine the day to massacre the Jews.
Amalek emerges here as a godless nation which attributes no meaning to human existence yet is submissive to blind fate.
In addition, Amalek is associated with exceptional cruelty, attacking the weak and defenseless among the Israelites upon the exodus from Egypt.
According to the Mei HaShiloah, these two characteristics, submission to a greater force and evil behavior, are connected.
“Amalek attributes all of their deeds to God saying that all the evil that they perform is the will of God. [This must be so] since without God’s will they would be powerless to do anything.” (Beshalah)
Amalek experiences themselves as actors following the script in some preordained divine production to which they have no choice but to submit. This interpretation of Amalek is strikingly similar to Erich Fromm’s understanding of the authoritarian personality. “Not only the forces that determine one’s own life directly but also those that seem to determine life in general are felt as unchangeable fate. It is fate that there are wars and that one part of mankind has to be ruled by another. It is fate that the amount of suffering can never be less than it always has been. Fate may be rationalized philosophically as “natural law” or as “destiny of man,” religiously as the “will of the Lord,” (emphasis mine) ethically as “duty” — for the authoritarian character can do nothing but submit. The authoritarian character worships the past. What has been, will eternally be. To wish or to work for something that has not yet been before is crime or madness. The miracle of creation- and creation is always a miracle- is outside the range of his emotional experience” (Fromm, Erich, Escape From Freedom, New York , 1941, p. 168-9).
The appropriate response to the evil and moral cowardice of Amalek is prayer. This is because praying reinforces our self-awareness as autonomous and responsible beings. Beyond that it engraves upon our consciousness the freedom of an open ended reality that is waiting to be created by us.
We emulate our gods and fashion ourselves in their image. The god of Amalek, if it exists for them at all, is a dark, faceless and cruel god. The God of Israel is the God of infinite possibilities, who begs us to joyfully engage in a life of meaning borne of freedom.