Rav Bar Oz*
by Rabbi Jeremy Barras
Toward the very end of the permanent exhibit at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, there is a quote from Deuteronomy 25:17 that reads, “Remember what Amalek did to you.” Amalek was the evil nation that attacked the Israelites on their way out of Egypt after they had emerged from the Red Sea. Later in the Tanach, we find other places where the nation of Amalek plagues the Jews and seems to have an irrational hatred for the Jewish people that consumes them. Included in their ranks is Haman, who intends to wipe out the Jewish people simply because they have different customs and practices than the other peoples of the Persian realm. It is thus fitting that a reminder at the end of Israel’s national Holocaust museum of such irrational hatred never be forgotten. In fact, two of the 613 Commandments in the Torah concern remembering what Amalek did to us and rooting them out from our midst.
The rabbis ask the question, though, of how Amalek was able to attack the Jewish people when they left Egypt. We are told in the Torah that a protective cloud hovered over the Israelites and protected them. Surely any nation that tried to penetrate the coverage of the cloud would be repelled by the Divine and would have no capacity to harm the Jewish people. The Torah explains that Amalek attacked from the rear where the most vulnerable of the Jews were marching, and they were able to strike them. It appears that the Torah means to teach that the sick, elderly and injured were marching towardsthe rear, and thus they were susceptible.
Are we to believe though that the cloud of protection did not extend to cover those Jews who were most in need of protection? The rabbis explain that the weak ones in the rear were not the physically weak, but the spiritually weak. They were the ones who could not abandon the idolatry of Egypt and who brought idols with them on their journey. Their lack of faith in God caused the cloud to retreat from above them, and thus they became susceptible to attack. It thus fell to the rest of the Israelites to go out to war against Amalek in defense of those at the rear who placed themselves outside of God’s protection.
During Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we today experience a spiritual high that is supposed to mirror the spiritual ecstasy of the marching through the divided Red Sea toward freedom. However, when it is over, God wonders who will remain under the divine clouds and who will not. Five days after Yom Kippur, the festival of Sukkot begins. The Sukkah represents the clouds that hovered over us and protected us in the wilderness of Sinai. Placing yourself under a Sukkah during Sukkot signifies that you wish to remain committed to a more spiritual existence. Meandering away from the Sukkah places you at the mercy of the physical world and the dangers that come with it. In the Torah, we call those dangers Amalek. And we are commanded not to forget what Amalek did to us when we were journeying away from Egypt and toward the Promised Land.
*The Barras family name was created during the Ellis Island Experience. Originally it was Bar Oz, meaning strength in Hebrew.