Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 27, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
The Torah does not dwell too long on the great moment of liberation, the miraculous experience of the Exodus. As soon as the people have sung their song of deliverance we read how they are ready to go back to Egypt because they have no food, no water and they are attacked by cruel Amalekites.
However victory over the Amalekites galvanizes them. There is nothing like pulling together to fight a common enemy that helps a group create a sense of cohesion and purpose.
After the victory however we note that there is something different about this enemy. The Lord said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven”! …The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the generations.” (Ex;17;14-16) Hundreds of years of enslavement to the Egyptians and we have no recorded statement that Israel must be at war with the Egyptians forever. In fact just the opposite we are told not to abhor an Egyptian for we were strangers in their land! (Deut. 23:8) But the Amalekites we must fight forever and eradicate. Why?
In reviewing Israel’s history in Deuteronomy Moses tells the new generation about how Amalek “met you by the way, and smote the stragglers, all that were feeble in the back, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God”.
Amalek and his tribe killed the weakest members of the community, the ones who lagged behind. Killing the stragglers is of no military or strategic importance. It is a waste of energy and resources. To defeat the Israelite enemy by killing in battle is one thing, but the “famished and weary”, those who cannot hurt you and are no threat, what is the point of killing them? You kill them because you can, because they’re different, because they’re not you. Amalek attacks and kills the “other” simply because they are the “other”. A depersonalized other. The explanation given for this act of depersonalization is that Amalek was Lo Yarei Elokim ‘he feared not God’.
Rabbi Jack Bloom, who was also a trained psychotherapist, offers a very powerful counter narrative to this reading. He notes that the verse in Hebrew can be read two ways. “Asher korkha baderekh, vayizanev bikha kol hanekheshelim akharekha v’atah ayef v’yagey’a v’Lo Yarei Elokim”
The phrase Lo Yarei Elokim ‘not afraid of God’ can also modify the direct antecedent “faint and weary”. That is the verse can be read this way:
“He met you by the way, and smote the stragglers, all that were feeble in the back, when you were faint and weary and feared not God”. According to this rendering it was the Israelites who were lacking in God-fearing qualities. Which leads to an unasked question – what were the weary and faint doing unprotected in the back of the lines? I mean, if the Israelites are trekking through the desert, still recovering from slavery, traveling with the weak and the sick, where was the security detail making sure to look out for them? Rabbi Bloom speculates that the leadership ignored them since they must have been a drain on resources. In Rabbi Bloom’s re-imagining he says, “They were the refuse, the impoverished, those no longer of any use in the long trek to Canaan. They were no longer of value. They did not matter. They had become ‘other’. They were depersonalized, left to perish in the desert, to be exterminated by Amalek.”
Perhaps that is too harsh a judgment. Yet he notes that the concept of Yarei Elokim is first found in the opening chapter of Exodus regarding the Hebrew midwives who refused Pharaoh’s order to murder the Hebrew boys. These babies were weak and helpless but they created in God’s image and their lives were sacred. Their “fear of God” governed their actions, it motivated compassion towards the helpless. And yet while the Israelites are traveling, they permit the infirm and weak to straggle behind.
Rabbi Bloom’s assessment is that the condemnation of Lo Yarei Elokim ‘not to fear God’, could apply to both the Amalekites and the Israelites. He writes, “unlike the midwives of old, (they) did not recognize the divine image in each person. Both were guilty of depersonalizing the other. Both were responsible for the awful outcome. Being Yarei Elokim (God fearing) means recognizing the ultimate personhood, the ultimate value of each human being. Taking none for granted, depersonalizing no one.”
Rabbi Bloom therefore transforms God’s eternal war against the people of Amalek into a perpetual war against depersonalizing human beings, a perpetual war against the Amalek inside each of us.
“We are each of us expert at depersonalizing others. We do it with our spouses, our friends, the other sex, our neighbors, ethnic groups, religions, races, with whoever is perceived of as the “other”. Each of us in any and every relationship is living and dealing with an alien reality. Depersonalizing is a simple way of dealing with “alienness”.
Look at the headlines in this past week’s news. Dr. Larry Nassar was convicted of molesting 160 young girls for decades under the guise of giving them examinations or medical treatment. This went on for years even as he was treated as a star doctor by the Gymnastics federation. And the Indianapolis Star, which broke the story, did so as part of an investigation into dozens of cases in which coaches were accused by young athletes of harassment and had the accusations filed away in secrecy. This can happen only when human beings are depersonalized.
The Nobel prize winning economist Angus Deaton wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Wednesday in which he wrote about the growth of poverty in America that rivals anything found in third world countries: “there are 5.3 million Americans who are absolutely poor by global standards. This is a small number compared with the one for India, for example, but it is more than in Sierra Leone (3.2 million) or Nepal (2.5 million), about the same as in Senegal (5.3 million) and only one-third less than in Angola (7.4 million).”
He mentions work by sociologists Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer who have documented the daily horrors of life for the several million people in the United States who live on $2 a day, in both urban and rural America.
He concludes “It is hard to imagine poverty that is worse than this, anywhere in the world.” We allow this to happen in our country when we no longer see these human beings as human beings we should care about.
The current fight over Dreamers, threatening to deport almost a million individuals who have grown up as Americans and contributing to American society, and the cynical attempts by those in the nativist wing of the Republican party to limit immigrants of color to America, is another disturbing form of depersonalization. When people read their stories, attitudes change. No one reads about a loving family about to be torn apart by deportation and says, Yeah, I am so glad that is happening. When we see Dreamers as real human beings, we care about their welfare.
And we Jews don’t get off the hook either. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to deport 50,000 Africans from Israel, impoverished migrants who fled war zones and have languished in Israel as the Israeli version of “America Firsters” insisted these people were criminals and diseased, has now been made public. There is an outcry in Israel about the cruelty of this plan but the extremist right wing is demanding that Netanyahu carry it out. And the timing couldn’t be worse. A letter of protest from dozens of Holocaust survivors is now the main Holocaust-related news coming out of Israel just in time for the one date in the calendar when most of the global media is looking for stories on this issue: International Holocaust Remembrance Day, this Saturday. This is the ultimate example of depersonalization, and worse, ingratitude. We criticized the world for turning a blind eye to our people during World War II and now representatives of our people do the same to others.
But we are not saints. Recognizing the divine uniqueness in every other, not depersonalizing them is not easy. Rabbi Bloom admits that this runs headlong into what we humans have to do to get by in the world. We have to generalize. We learn by generalizing. Much of our learning and behavior comes from our ability to generalize from one situation to another, from one person to another. Otherwise we could predict nothing. We would be starting from square one all the time. And generalizing is the direct opposite of recognizing each human being as a specific and different person, each created in the “Image”, unique, and ultimately valuable. We can’t care about each unique individual, nor respect each individual’s uniqueness we are limited ourselves. Depersonalizing is a lot easier. It is both natural and effortless and helps us sleep at night.
But God is at war with the Amalek in us and in others for all generations. God has sworn us to an oath to wipe out Amalek; We are covenanted to overcome the tendency to depersonalize others which has wreaked so much havoc in human history. Our task is to be Yarei Elohim counted among those who fear God. Our mission is to see the personhood in ourselves and all others. Our battle is to blot out the Amalek, which depersonalizes and destroys, in both ourselves and others, lest it destroy the world.