In a relatively short time the Israelites went from witnessing the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea to quarreling and questioning whether God is “in our midst or not” בְּקִרְבֵּ֖נוּ אִם־אָֽיִן (Shemot, 17:7). Perhaps this attests to the limited impact of larger than life miracles, or our lack of appreciation of the spiritual damage from two hundred and ten years of slavery. In any case, the Midrash is interested in a precise understanding of what their theological rebellion was all about. It had to be severe enough to warrant an attack from our eternal archenemy – Amaleik.
Midrash Tanchuma offers three opinions concerning the complaint of the people. It actually took the form of an ultimatum. If God didn’t accept their conditions of governance, they would rebel. The first opinion in the Midrash is one that has echoed throughout the generations until today.
We want to be like everyone else
רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר אָמְרוּ אִם רִבּוֹן הוּא עַל כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים כְּדֶרֶךְ שֶׁהוּא רִבּוֹן עָלֵינוּ, נַעַבְדֶּנּוּ, וְאִם לָאו נִמְרֹד בּוֹ.
“Rabbi Yehudah said “If God runs the rest of the world with the same principles that govern the Jewish People, we will worship God. But if we are governed by different principles, we will rebel” (Midrash Tanchuma Beshalach, 25).*
Perhaps they were rebelling against God’s intense scrutiny. The people were being miraculously fed, clothed, and protected in their journey through the desert. It was their perception that other nations were not under as intense a gaze as they were. There was a yearning to be like everyone else. Therefore, the people declared that if they can live under the same system of divine justice as the rest of the world, they will serve God, otherwise they will rebel.
Why would an attack from Amaleik serve as a fitting response? Perhaps God is sending a message that: “Sorry, there is indeed a double standard. The Jewish People were chosen for a unique mission and destiny. Thus the increased scrutiny.
Throughout Jewish history, when Jews assimilated in an effort to be like everyone else, there was often increased antisemitism. Amaleik has taken on different disguises, only recognizable by their irrational, genocidal, hatred of the Jews. Unfortunately this is quite a timely lesson.
Too much drama. Too many curve balls.
Rabbi Nechemia offers another take on the Israelite’s test of allegiance.
וְרַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה אוֹמֵר: אִם מְסַפֵּק לָנוּ מְזוֹנוֹת כְּמֶלֶךְ שֶׁהוּא נִכְנַס לַמְּדִינָה וְהֵם מְקַלְּסִין אוֹתוֹ וּמְכַבְּדִין אוֹתוֹ שֶׁהוּא מַסְפִּיק כָּל צָרְכֵיהֶם, נַעַבְדֶנּוּ. וְאִם לָאו, נִמְרֹד בּוֹ
“If He supplies us with food, just as a king does when he is praised and honored by the people upon entering a city. And if on that basis He satisfies all our needs, we will serve Him, but if He does not do so, we will rebel against Him” (Ibid).
Perhaps the Jews were reacting to their short but tumultuous history. Slavery, plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea. On their first stop in the desert there was no water until there was a miracle. The next stop had springs and date palm trees. However there was no food at the next stop. This was resolved by the great miracle of Manna and quail. At the next stop there was no water again so Moshe hit the rock to miraculously supply water.
Could it be that the Jewish People were feeling that there is too much drama in life. They want the rest of Jewish history to unfold in a simple and predictable manner – like a king whom you praise and then he takes care of you. No curve balls. Nothing unexpected.
Perhaps the attack from Amaleik is God’s way of saying “Sorry for the rude awakening but your lack of faith is the cause of the drama. It’s okay to ask for water. But don’t scream about how you had better food in Egypt and you want to go back. After all the supernatural miracles that I performed, can’t you muster a little faith?”
We were taken out of Egypt to develop into a great nation. Unfortunately, nothing builds faith like being saved by vicious enemies. So every time we forget who runs the world we will need another tragic reminder in the form of Amaleik.
Anticipate our needs
The Rabbis offer a third opinion:
וְרַבּוֹתֵינוּ אוֹמְרִים: אִם מְהַרְהֲרִין אָנוּ בְּלִבֵּנוּ וִיהֵא יוֹדֵעַ מָה אָנוּ מְהַרְהֲרִין,
נַעַבְדֶנּוּ. וְאִם לָאו, לֹא נַעַבְדֶנּוּ,
“If we know in our hearts what we need, and He (God) knows what we are thinking, we will serve Him, but if not, we will not serve Him” (Ibid).
Perhaps they said to God. “Let’s face it, you’re God. You know what we need without us having to express it. So, how about if You (God) just anticipate our needs and take care of us.” Like a futuristic candy machine that gives you your selection by reading your mind.
Once again, the attack of Amaleik is God’s way of responding. God does indeed know what is in their hearts. However, feeling Jewish in your heart is not the kind of relationship God is seeking. The ideals of the Torah have to be translated into action. Judaism is not a spectator religion. We have to pray to God and study Torah in order to seek to understand and build a relationship with God. We have to work on our own character and perform precepts that enhance our relationship with our fellow man and with God. The attack by Amaleik is real. The fear is real. The gratitude upon being saved and the lessons learned are real.
Sorry, God wasn’t looking for a nation of mentalists.
The ungrateful son
The Midrash spells out God’s frustration with the doubts that the people had raised:
אֲנִי בֵינֵיכֶם וּמְזֻמָּן לְכָל צָרְכֵּיכֶם וְאַתֶּם אוֹמְרִים הֲיֵשׁ ה’ בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ אִם אָיִן, חַיֵּיכֶם שֶׁהַכֶּלֶב בָּא וְנוֹשֵׁךְ אֶתְכֶם וְאַתֶּם צוֹעֲקִים לִי וְתֵדְעוּ הֵיכָן אָנִי
“I am living in your midst and I am taking care of everything you may need, and yet you say, “Is the Lord among us or not?” By your lives, I swear that the dog (Amaleik) shall come and bite you, and you will cry to Me and then you will know where I am!”
The Midrash sums it up with this parable:
מָשָׁל לְאָדָם שֶׁהִרְכִּיב בְּנוֹ עַל כְּתֵפוֹ וְיָצָא לַדֶּרֶךְ, הָיָה אוֹתוֹ הַבֵּן רוֹאֶה חֵפֶץ וְאוֹמֵר, אַבָּא טֻל חֵפֶץ זֶה וְתֶן לִי וְהוּא נוֹתֵן לוֹ, וְכֵן שְׁנִיָּה, וְכֵן שְׁלִישִׁית, פָּגְעוּ בְאָדָם אֶחָד אָמַר לוֹ אוֹתוֹ הַבֵּן, רָאִיתָ אֶת אַבָּא? אָמַר לוֹ אָבִיו, אֵינְךָ יוֹדֵעַ הֵיכָן אָנִי? הִשְׁלִיכוֹ מֵעָלָיו וּבָא הַכֶּלֶב וּנְשָׁכוֹ
“A man carried his son upon his shoulder, and went out on a journey. The son saw an item he wanted and said, ‘Father, pick up that thing and give it to me’. His father gave it to him. It happened a second time and a third time. They met a certain man and the son asked him, ‘Have you seen my father anywhere?’ Whereupon his father said to his son,’Don’t you know where I am?’ The father cast his son off his shoulder and a dog came and bit him.”
Amaleik the marriage counselor of last resort
The attack of Amaleik served as a bitter lesson about assuming the role as the Chosen People. They were soon going to receive the Torah. The prophets often compared this historic event to a wedding. God is the bride and the Jewish People are the groom. Although the groom will prove to be unfaithful, the bride will never abandon the relationship. Unfortunately it will sometimes take the unwelcome intervention of Amaleik to restore harmony.
A painful lesson that will be lost and found throughout the millennia.
* In some editions of Midrash Tanchuma, this same piece appears in Yitro, 3:4