Thursday, January 25, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’shalakh 5778–Revisiting G”d’s War

Revisiting words I first wrote in 2005, and adding new thoughts for today here in 2018.

Do you believe in G”d? Have your ever doubted G”d? Have your ever doubted G”d's existence? Have you ever asked yourself "Why should I believe in G”d?"

I suspect that being plagued with these kinds of thoughts and doubts are common to even the most pious among us. Life and the universe are chock full of things that can and do challenge our faith.

Both for myself, and also in my role as a Jewish educator, I am always seeking out thoughtful and useful responses to the kinds of questions noted above. All too often, even when I answer such questions with reasonable responses, I still have this gut feeling that I am only using clichés, offering pabulum. Sometimes I wonder if it might be better if I did not respond at all-though I am never truly able to convince myself that this is the wisest choice. Leave a student's "why should I believe in G”d?" question without a response, even if it is just a clever finessing of the situation, or a simple "I don't know do you?" and perhaps you leave them with the idea that their question is not worth answering.

Sometimes my answer (to myself or others) can be as simple as "because G”d is." Sometimes it can be a much more complex formula. Sometimes it can be nuanced. Sometimes it can be heretical. Sometimes it can even be “I’m not sure if I do believe, or what I believe about G”d.”  They run the gamut. Then there are all those things that G”d is said to have done in the Torah that make me question G”d, that make me ask “why would G”d do that?” Those of you who know me already know that I don’t find “the ineffable G”d” an acceptable answer. I don’t go for biblical or religious apologetics in any form. Most of the time. Like any potentially hypocritical human being I sometimes engage in my own whitewash or apologetics, or accept those offered by others.  I can be weak. As I have stated often, I believe that if we are b’tzelem El”him, in the image of G”d, then,. perforce. G”d is b’tzelem anashim – we find in ourselves and in G”d all those good and bad traits of which we are both capable.

Back in 2005, when preparing to write about B’shalakh, and my focus was yet again on how to answer students when they asked tough questions like “why should I believe in G”d? Why should anyone believe in G”d?” I found myself pleased and surprised when I came to its end and read these words:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כְּתֹ֨ב זֹ֤את זִכָּרוֹן֙ בַּסֵּ֔פֶר וְשִׂ֖ים בְּאָזְנֵ֣י יְהוֹשֻׁ֑עַ כִּֽי־מָחֹ֤ה אֶמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

Then 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!”

וַיִּ֥בֶן מֹשֶׁ֖ה מִזְבֵּ֑חַ וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ נִסִּֽי׃

And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi.

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־יָד֙ עַל־כֵּ֣ס יָ֔הּ מִלְחָמָ֥ה לַיהוָ֖ה בַּֽעֲמָלֵ֑ק מִדֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר׃

He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of the LORD!’ The LORD will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” (Ex. 17:14-16)

Hmmm. Maybe there's a reason to believe in G”d, I thought.

Going back and re-reading these thoughts from 2005, I find myself wondering why I thought that might be a good thing. Why would I be happy that G”d would be at perpetual war with Amalek? Doubter that I am, and willing to argue with myself, I read on seeing if the me of 2005 could convince the me of 2018.

Amalek represents the worst of the worst. An enemy that would attack the weak and the lame, the children. By extrapolation, an figure representing evil, immoral leaders for countless generations to come – and in particular, those who would set themselves against the Jewish people.

Some rabbis teach us that Amalek represents evil without cause, as opposed to evil brought on by thoughts of revenge, hatred, anger, etc.

At first I thought "how can there be such evil?" Even the most barbarous of villains seemed to claim a purpose behind their actions. And in our contemporary culture, we seem prone to explaining evil as resulting from some trauma or underlying cause or event in someone's life. Those who are abused often abuse others. Some chemical imbalance may be at the root of someone's anti-social behavior. Though I've never read any, I am sure there are plenty of analyses of why Hitler turned into Hitler.

I am sure that there truly is unexplainable, unjustifiable evil in this world. I think.  The problem is, I believe we are helpless to do anything about it. Oh, we band together and fight great wars to wipe out this kind of unrepentant, purposeless evil, and we seem to have success. Somehow, though, that kind of evil eventually resurfaces yet again. Our own history as a people is clear evidence of this. I fear it is happening again here and now in 2018 – though I need convincing that we are truly helpless to fight that unjustifiable evil, and need G”d to help us understand why we can succeed at it.

It is our role, our obligation, to be G”d's partner. That G”d will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages is a clue that we are going to have to partner with G”d for all time in this war against Amalek. We cannot do it alone. We cannot completely wipe out the evil from our midst on our own. We need G”d's help, and G”d needs our help.

“Yessiree, that's a great reason to believe,” I wrote in 2005. It’s January 2018 now, and we have endured a year under the present administration, and all that it represents. It is difficult for me to not think of it as evil. I see signs that we are struggling to fight it and defeat it, though as much as I see these encouraging signs, I fear I also see signs of continuing normalization, of acceptance of the evil. I, and many others, I think, are growing weary. Our passion is strong, but the fight is draining, as it requires such continual effort. Yes, I have turned to my faith, my understanding of G”d to seek strength, and to pray for assistance in whatever way it might come through Divine provenance (even with all my doubts about G”d being active in such things. So yes, in that sense, I have some reasons to believe.

Everywhere we see senseless hatred or violence, we find Amalek. When nations war for reasons that are unclear, we see Amalek. when people kill for no reason, we see Amalek. Perhaps even in the childish innocence of a young boy squishing a bug, or frying ants with a magnifying glass, we see Amalek. Perhaps in casual toying with nuclear annihilation we see Amalek. Perhaps in inciting people to racism and hatred, we see Amalek.

Perhaps there is a little Amalek in all of us, waiting for its chance to express itself. Like the song in Avenue Q, maybe everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes. Perhaps it is our faith that enables us to keep the Amalek within in check. And surely it can also help us keep the Amalek without, with G”d's help, in check, too.

I don’t honestly know if G”d can or will help us in fighting the Amaleks of today and tomorrow, but I do know that recognizing the eternal warning in Torah that G”d will always be at war with Amalek is a warning to us to be vigilant. I know it’s hypocritical of me – I don’t even like the idea of a G”d that is at war with anyone, or a G”d that causes or allows war. I’m not sure I approve of a G”d that, by choosing to give us free will, also allows unspeakable evil to be in our world. Couldn’t there be alternatives?

Is partnering with G”d in this eternal effort against Amalek acquiescing, letting G”d off the hook? Should I be fighting to change the very idea that G”d wants or needs to be at war with Amalek? Should I be striving to help create a world that will no longer give rise to Amaleks? That seems like the best route. However, since I don’t know what will work best, perhaps I should cover all my bases. So I’ll end with the same words I did in 2005.

May we all strive to be G”d's partner in this unceasing war with Amalek – the Amalek inside and the Amalek outside.

I’ll also add these words in 2018:

May we all strive to create a world, if such a thing is possible, where another Amalek will ever arise.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2018 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Beshalakh 5777 - Moshe's Musings (Revised and Expanded from 5760)
Beshalakh 5776 - Mi Kamonu?
Beshalakh 5775 - I'm Not Doing It Alone
Beshalakh 5774 - A Lot Can Change in 13 Years - Or Not
Beshalakh 5773 - Moshe's Musings (Revised from 5760)
Beshalakh 5772 - Thankful For the Worst
Beshalakh 5771 - Praying That Moshe Was Wrong
Beshalakh 5768 - Man Hu
Beshalakh 5767-March On
Beshalakh 5766-Manna Mania II
Beshalakh 5765-Gd's War
Beshalach 5763-Mi Chamonu
Beshalach 5760-Moshe's Musings
Beshalach 5762-Manna mania
Beshalach 5761-Warrior Gd

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