Judaism: Balak: The Scheming Practices of Amalek
Shira SmilesShira Smiles is a sought-after international lecturer, popular seminary teacher and experienced curriculum developer. A well-respected former Los Angeles teacher, she now lives in Israel, where she teaches at Darchei Bina Seminary and leads a number of women's study groups. Shira also trains Torah teachers in special workshops all over the world.
Summaryby Channie Koplowitz Stein
Bnei Yisroel have completed their forty years of wandering in the desert. Bnei Yisroel are now again about to enter the land promised to them. Aharon has died and the clouds of glory surrounded Bnei Yisroel in his merit have disappeared. Once again, they are attacked by an enemy trying to block their advance. The Torah relates the events:
"The Canaanite king of Arad, who dwelled in the south, heard that Israel had come by the route of the spies, and he warred against Israel and took a captive from it. Israel made a vow to Hashem and said, “If He will deliver this people in to my hand, I will consecrate their cities.”
Who was this Canaanite king and why did he choose to attack now? If defeating Israel was his goal, why did he just take one captive instead of waging an all out war? What is the significance of the ambiguous wording of the prayer Bnei Yisroel uttered, and why did they consecrate the spoils of this battle specifically to Hashem? Further, what is the significance of the route they were now taking? These are some of the questions raised by the seemingly extraneous words in these few verses.
Rashi sheds light on the first of our questions, and his response sheds tremendous light on the remaining difficulties. Arad and his Canaanite nation were in fact Amalek who dwelled in the south and who are the eternal enemy of Bnei Yisroel. But if they were Amalekites, why are they identified as Canaanites?
Therein lies the subtle deception Amalek is always capable of. Amalek was aware that the strength of Bnei Yisroel lay in its power of prayer. After all, Amalek’s grandfather Esau must have told him how Yaakov “stole” the blessings from him and that Yitzchak had verbalized the difference between the twins, “Hakol kol Yaakov, vehayadim yedei Esav, the power of Yaakov is in his voice, his power of prayer, while the power of Esau lies in his hands, his physical might, his sword”.
As the Oznaim LaTorah explains, it wasn’t just that Bnei Yisroel were now vulnerable because the clouds of glory vanished; it was a matter of undermining the voice of Yaakov. If Amalek could weaken the prayers of Bnei Yisroel, explains Rabbi Dovid Hoffsteder in Drash Dovid, then Bnei Yisroel would lose their power and they, Amalek, would be victorious.
So the Amalekites disguised their voices, speaking like the Canaanites, so thatI srael would pray to be victorious over the wrong nation. They take one captive, a prisoner of a former war, hoping to instill fear into the hearts of Bnei Yisroel so that they would want to return to the safety of Egypt instead of moving forward to the Promised Land.
But Bnei Yisroel is not taken in by this ruse. They react appropriately by praying to Hashem and thereby being unafraid. They noticed that the enemy spoke like Canaanites but retained the uniforms of Amalekites. Unsure of who the enemy was, their prayer was composed as a prayer against a generic enemy, this people. And to fortify their prayer, they coupled it with an action, a vow to consecrate the enemy and its cities to God.
Nevertheless, Amalek hoped to weaken the prayers of Bnei Yisroel. According to Rabbi Druck in Darchei Mordechai, if Bnei Yisroel saw that this enemy was Amalek, their prayers would be deep and fervent, for they were already familiar from previous experience with the havoc Amalek could wreak. If, on the other hand, Bnei Yisroel thought the enemy was just Canaan, perhaps their prayers would not be as heartfelt and therefore would be less powerful.
While Bnei Yisroel did not fall prey to the ruse of Amalek, continues the Drash Dovid, the experience nevertheless left an impression on Bnei Yisroel, just as Yaakov was left limping even though he was victorious in his battle with Esau’s guardian angel. Therefore, although Bnei Yisroel had full faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu, they now realized how fully dependent they were on Hashem for everything, for every morsel of food and every sip of water.
Therefore the parsha continues with Bnei Yisroel complaining about their food and water, for they were afraid they could not live constantly on such a high spiritual level to merit such benevolence. Bnei Yisroel were already becoming unglued with the death of Aharon, as Rabbi Frand points out, citing the Ateres Mordechai. Aharon had united the people in peace and brought them to a higher level of intimacy with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. With his death, the unity that had protected Bnei Yisroel from harm dissipated, and the clouds of glory left as a result.
Nevertheless, Bnei Yisroel prayed. But, as Rabbi Gavriel Rabinowitz explains in Tiv HaTorah, prayer needs to be strengthened with other components. Seeing the enemy up close and personal brought Bnei Yisroel to a point of introspection, to question themselves why Hashem saw fit to bring this danger to them. They did teshuvah. They further coupled their prayer with action, with resolution, to dedicate all the spoils of this war to God. They created the threefold cord of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, introspection and atonement, prayer, and (charity) action, and were thus able to vanquish the enemy.
Let us now return to the scheming practices of Amalek. They had changed their language but not their clothes. As Mizkeinim Esbonan explains, one can dissemble with words, but once one adopts the clothing of another culture, one is changing oneself in many other ways. After all, clothes make the man. So while Amalek tried to trick Bnei Yisroel into believing this was not really Amalek, this evil nation never changed. They remained the Amalek they had always been.
The Taam Vodaat elaborates on this point. Amalek was the paradigmatic non believer. They may not have believed in the power of prayer at all, but they wanted to throw Bnei Yisroel off its defenses. They didn’t declare all out war, but just took one captive to show good intentions.They changed their language to a language of peace, saying we can coexist. In this way, they hoped to entrap Bnei Yisroel and catch them off guard. Their real motive, their real identity of Amalek as manifest in their clothing, to destroy Bnei Yisroel never changed.
The Shaarei Chaim takes this idea one step further. Amalek always symbolically represents the yetzer horo, the evil inclination whose purpose is to lead us to self destruction through sin. It hides, it entices us with friendly language.But we must be wary of these friends. They are emulating their progenitor Esau who knew how to entrap others through his sly power of speech, ki tzayid befiv. Our job is to recognize this as the ploy of the yetzer horo and to let go of the rope he’s using to entangle us. As Rebbetzin Sara Yocheved Rigler points out, the yetzer horo has imprisoned us, and we need outside help to get the key to release us; we must pray to Hashem for His help.
Because Amalek/yetzer horo is so adept at dissimulation, it is often difficult to recognize him. In fact, says Reb Chaim Shmulevitz in Sichot Mussar, that initial struggle of Yaakov with Esau’s angel points to this very problem. When Yaakov asks the angel for his name after fighting with him, the angel answers, “Why do you ask my name,” for in fact, his identity constantly changes as his programs and schemes evolve.
On a parallel track, the Drash Mordechai cites Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Sheer and gives us another explanation. Amalek is within us. We know intellectually that we are nothing but dust and ashes, yet we cannot reconcile that with our desire to live our lives on an almost totally physical and materialistic level. We cannot shed our external clothing even as our inner voice tells us differently. Just as Amalek knew the power of Bnei Yisroel’s prayer but couldn’t resist the temptation to try to annihilate them as soon as they saw them, so too are we often in the grasp of what we see and what we physically want. Our task is to wrest control from the physical world around us, the world of illusion and dust, and strengthen ourselves in the world of the spirit and truth. Let our minds rule our hearts.
But just as our environment has an impact on us, so do we leave an impression on the world around us. These impressions remain long after we leave the place. Rabbi Goldwicht discusses this idea in Asufat Maarachot and explains why the path Bnei Yisroel took now, the same route originally used by the spies some thirty nine years earlier, was relevant. If this was the place that struck fear in the hearts of Bnei Yisroel earlier at the return of the spies, reasoned Amalek, we can use the negative energy created then to our advantage and try to destroy Israel in this very same place. Indeed, if you want your Torah learning to have an impact on your life rather than remaining inert and empty, find the proper environment for your studies.
Using this theme, Rav Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim explains how at the end of days a lion and a lamb will live in peace. At that time, says Rav Reiss, when “nation will not lift up sword against nation and man will no longer study war,” the peaceful energy generated by humans will impact nature itself, and the animals too will live together in peace.
We have to build this sanctuary of sanctity, says Halekach Vehalebuv. Every time our hand is stretched out to give tzedakah or do chessed, it retains an element of kedushah. Every week we sanctify the space of our homes with the kedushah of Shabbos. Let us try to extend that spirituality and peace to the rest of the week.
Let us be sensitive to the nuances of the world around us so that we can recognize the various guises of the yetzer horo. Let us work to merit winning the final national and personal battles with the Amalek that surround us on all sides.
http://www.naaleh.com/viewclass/2964/single/is address to hear audio and video.