Monday, March 5, 2007

The arms of Moses

In one of the most compelling images from the Torah, the Jews wage a war for their lives, against their terminal foe, Amalek. The Bible records the fight as follows:

Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword. (Exodus 17)

So, what, if anything does this have to do with conversion to Judaism?

Of all the enemies of the Jews, the Torah reveals that God has a particular wrath towards the Amalekites; Amalek alone, among Israel's many enemies is condemned to utter annihlation. The Jewish tradition teaches that God had this anger toward Amalek for two reasons. First, Amalek attacked Israel while she was weary and in flight from the Egyptians, and Amalek targeted the stragglers and the weakest among the Jews. Secondly, and more importantly, all of the other nations who saw Israel's flight from Egypt were aware of and observed the power of God, including the parting of the Red Sea, and stood in awe of God, and dared not attack the Jews. Amalek stood in defiance of God. Even though God's miracles were observed, Amalek did not resist the urge to prey on the people who, so obviously to other nations, had God's favor.

The sages never interpreted this episode to demonstrate that Moses had some "magical" ability to influence the outcome on the battlefield by raising or lowering his hands. Rather, the message is that when Moses raised his arms, and the Jews raised their eyes to heaven, they took courage in the presence of God, and fought with valor, and ultimately, were victorious in battle. However, although Amalek was defeated at Rephidim, he was not destroyed. And consequently, throughout history Amalek has returned, and we are under an unremitting duty to wage uncompromising war against him, until at last, he is completely destroyed.

Who is Amalek today?

Certainly, there is a potential Amalek in every person; that inclination to quit God, to to embrace the idolatry of hedonism or materialism, or even to believe in the absence of any higher power than man - the inclination to forget that the Jews only prevailed at Rephidim through the worship and love of God. We must fight Amalek in this very personal way.

But to Jews, there is certainly also another aspect of Amalek. Amalek arises in all those who seek to spiritually degrade and demoralise us, and also, sadly; it is still the case, destroy us. Amalek is alive and well. Jews have been able to survive the onslaught of Amalek for many centuries. But, even the arms of Moses grew weary. In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert stated:

"We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies. . ."

Several months later, Israeli Nobel Laureate Israel Aumann stated:

“[T]he Prime Minister said that we are tired. He was right. He was elected by the nation, and he expresses the sentiments of the nation. We are like a mountain-climber that gets caught in a snowstorm; the night falls, he is cold and tired, and he wants to sleep. If he falls asleep, he will freeze to death. We are in terminal danger because we are tired."

These comments speak of a collective sense of "combat fatigue" felt by Israeli society, but they could have just as easily been speaking for all Jews. Indeed in this globalized world, Amalek is everywhere. The temptation for Jews to turn our eyes away from God in despair, and to forget who we are is very real.

Amalek wants to see Judaism fail, to witness the Abrahamic Covenant forever broken. In an age where idolatry and aetheism are deemed public virtues, and the superstructure of morality yields to unlimited relativism as it is cut free from the anchor of God, Amalek practices stealth warfare and in many instances, hides in plain sight. Amalek knows no civilized rules of engagement, and abides by no codes of chivalry. There is no truth so self-evident, or proof so overwhelming that Amalek will not deny it. Amalek is an enemy with no shame.

Yet, when a non-Jew embraces Judaism through a sincere and faithful conversion, the potential Amalek within him - the evil inclination leading away from God - is defeated. But in a larger sense, the conversion of a non-Jew deprives Amalek of one more agent on this earth against the Jews, and brings to the Jewish people one more "brother in arms" in the age old struggle. Conversion means not simply one more person to "stand with the Jews", but rather, it means one more person, in steadfast loyalty, zeal, and love of God, standing as a Jew.

We are told, "always remember Amalek". Indeed, we must never forget Amalek, but we also must never forget how we prevailed at Rephidim. When Moses was tired, Aaron and Hur raised his arms and held them up. For millions of people throughout the world who live in poverty and oppression, and for millions more who crave spiritual awakening, and who detest the godlessness of the world around them, by turning to Judaism, they can raise their eyes to heaven and defeat the presence of Amalek in their lives; and God wil receive and redeem them "with a strong hand and an outstretched arm." Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook stated: "God's 'mighty hand' dramatically raised the Jewish people from the depths of defilement and degradation in Egypt to the spiritual heights of Mount Sinai." Such is the power of worshipping God and accepting the Torah. And to Jews, converts will be like Aaron and Hur, filling the Jewish people with new life and energy, renewing our spirit - raising the arms of Moses. And we shall rejoice!

And when the battle is joined, we will prevail.


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