Torah for the Times

Friday, November 16 2012 - 2 Kislev, 5773

Torah Reading: Toldot (Genesis 25:19 - 28:9)
Candle Lighting Time: 4:18 PM

Shabbat ends: 5:20 PM

Doubt Versus Chutzpah


This week’s parsha begins with what appears to be a rather redundant fact. “These are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac.” Why the repetition?

Rashi observes that there is a need for the Torah to repeat Abraham’s relationship with Isaac to underscore that Abraham was indeed the father of Isaac and to counter the cynics (lit. “the clowns of the generation”) who claimed that indeed Sarah was Isaac’s mother, but Abraham, was cold not have been the father. They mockingly suggested that Avimelech was Isaac’s father. Avimelech, the Philistine monarch, like Pharaoh before him, forcibly took Sarah into his palace after he was told by Abraham that she was his sister. When he was informed by G‑d in a dream that Sarah was a married woman, he promptly returned her untouched to Abraham. So it was natural for Abraham’s detractors to claim that he was not the real father of Isaac.

Rashi continues: “What did G‑d do? He formed Isaac’s face to be a spitting image of his father Abraham. So that everyone who saw the two of them easily recognized that Abraham begot Isaac.”

But what were the mockers trying to achieve? If they accepted the far greater miracle of that Sarah, a ninety-year old woman, could conceive and bear a child -what good was it for the mockers to claim that she conceived from Avimelech? By claiming that Abraham at age 100 did not in fact father Isaac, the magnitude of the miracle of Isaac’s birth would not be diminished one whit?

The Unsophisticated Scoffer

The simple answer is that this is precisely the nature of a cynic and a scoffer. They are not serious people and they don’t have to be rational or consistent. Their nature is to throw cold water on the enthusiasm exhibited by serious people, making some inane joke to pour cold water on the enthusiasm of the believers and doers.

In Biblical literature this cynical and mocking approach is identified with the Philistines. In a similar manner, when Samson was captured, the Philistines mocked him and sneered at him (see Judges 16:25).

Parallel with Amalek

One is tempted to draw a parallel between the cynical approach of the Philistines and the evil approach of another nation—the Amalekites. They, too, are identified with an attempt to instill doubts in the minds of the believers. The very word Amalek is said to be the numerical equivalent (gimatriya) of the Hebrew word for doubt-safek. When a person is enthusiastic about something spiritual, Amalek tries to cool off the excitement by sowing doubts. Indeed, Amalek was the first nation to attack the Jews when they left Egypt at a time when all other nations feared attacking the Jews. After Amalek attacked, however, other nations concluded that the Israleites were not untouchable, that they too could attempt to harm the Jewish people. The Midrash compares this situation to a boiling tub of water that everyone is terrified to go into. Someone then comes along, and, knowing that he will be scalded, takes the plunge and gets burnt, but succeeds in cooling off the water—both literally and psychologically—for others to follow.

A superficial analysis of Amalek and the Philistines would bring us to the conclusion that they share this trait of trying to desensitize people to the reality of G‑d, His teachings and the unique role the Jewish people play in G‑d’s Master Plan for the universe.

The cynics of Abraham’s and Isaac’s time tried to mock the role of Abraham as father toa child who would ultimately lead to the formation of a Jewish nation that would transmit G‑d’s message to the world. The Philistines sought to undermine that goal, and similarly, the Amalekites sought to destroy the nascent and fledgling Jewish nation on their path to Sinai to receive the Torah. Both the Philistine and the Amalek motto seem to be “nip G‑d’s experiment in the bud”!

Two Nations; Two Approaches

Upon deeper reflection, it will become clear that there is a difference between these two evil nations and mindsets.

Though both attitudes are designed to deter people from attaining lofty goals by either mocking them or sewing doubts, there seems to be a difference. To understand the difference between these two forces of evil it is important to examine the timing of their attacks.

The first time we meet the Philistine challenge is soon after the first Jewish child is born. Again, when the Jews leave Egypt, the Torah relates that G‑d did not take them through the Land of the Philistines. There was a concern that traveling through that area could infect the Jews with cynicism and cause them to give up on becoming a Jewish nation and convince them to return to slavery in Egypt. This explains the underlying logic of the words in Exodus: “He took them through a circuitous route and did not take them through the land of the Philistines lest they will see war and they will return to Egypt.” The war that would impel them to return to slavery was the war of Philistine mockery and scorn.

Only later, after witnessing the incredible miracle of the splitting of the sea and the end of the Egyptian threat, did Amalek enter onto the scene and attack the Jews both physically and spiritually.

This difference between these two nations is echoed in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. In its opening paragraph it declares: “Do not be embarrassed by the mockers.” The message conveyed by this exhortation is that if you want to accomplish anything wothrwhile, don’t allow yourself to be deterred by the cynics.

If we go to the end of the Shulchan Aruch (portion of Orach Chaim, which deals with Mitzvahs of our daily lives) it discusses the laws of Purim, the holiday in which we celebrate the victory over Amalek’s most infamous descendant—Haman. The very last words of that section are a quote from Proverbs: “A good heart always celebrates.”

The message is that if Purim is the Holiday that marks the defeat of Amalek’s doubts and desensitization campaign, it does not suffice to celebrate Purim one day a year. One must extend the war against Amalek every day of one’s life. Indeed, while the cynicism and mockery of the Philistines cannot deter someone who is well on the road toward one’s goals, Amalek never gives up. Amalek hounds us and when he is defeated, he merely changes his disguise and attacks us over and over.

In summary, the salient difference between the cynicism of the Philistines and the assault of self-doubt of Amalek is that the former generally attacks us before we get off the ground, whereas the latter never gives up. Even the most advanced person in the most advanced stages of his or her development needs to be aware of the insidious ways that Amalek tries to derail us.

In other words, Philistines cynicism was not very sophisticated. They would never be taken seriously by any thinking person. Proof of that is the fact that they tried to minimize the excitement of the miracle of Isaac’s birth by stating that Sarah conceived from Avimelech. But a thinking person would immediately realize the inane nature of that argument since it was Sarah’s ability to have a child that was by far the greater miracle. Amalek, by contrast, is sophisticated and is always a step ahead of us.

What Would Amalek have Said?

If Amalek had been around in the days of Abraham, he would not have stated foolishly that Sarah conceived from Avimelech, but rather Amalek would throw cold water on the miracle by saying, “why are you getting excited and making such a big deal out of G‑d performing a miracle! It is almost demeaning to think of G‑d as merely a miracle worker. If anything, Amalek self-righteously taunts us: we should be impressed with the miracle of nature rather than with nature-busting tricks. Meanwhile, Amalek succeeds in cooling off the ardor and excitement that is generated by the miracle. Amalek is quite adept at even throwing a “curve ball” at the most sophisticated Torah scholar.

Responding to the Twin Threats

How does one deal with these twin forces of evil?

To get rid of the Philistine cynicism we must use the opposite trait of chutzpah. Knowing our unique mission, we should ignore what others have to say. The fact that G‑d formed Isaac’s face to resemble Abraham teaches us that G‑d will alter nature as an act of defiance and holy chutzpah. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch states that one has to be careful not to allow the chutzpah needed to ward off the cynics to alter one’s personality. But, nevertheless, some modicum of holy chutzpah is the antidote to the cynical attempts of the modern day mockers to hinder our spiritual growth.

Conversely, Amalek who epitomizes the wrong type of chutzpah—he is not afraid of jumping into a scalding cauldron and will take on the most sophisticated of us—is countered not with chutzpah, because Amalek is better at it than we are. The answer to Amalek is joy; joy that comes from a humble dedication to G‑d regardless of the forces that try to demoralize us and depress us. Indeed, joy helps us destroy Amalek and destroying Amalek leads to joy, which explains why the month of Adar, in which we destroy Amalek, is the ultimate month of joy.

At the Crossroads

We are now standing at the crossroads between the era of golus-exile and geulah-Redemption. Our journey now has met with two sinister forces. For the unsophisticated and unlettered amongst us, the cynics come along and mock our sincere faith in the imminent coming of Moshiach. The Philistine cynicism and scorn has no substance and it can invade—the word Philistine actually means “invader”—the minds and heart of those who are not able to respond logically to their taunts.

To counter these efforts, we need a healthy dose of holy chutzpah.

But for the Amalek challenge, which cloaks itself in much more sophisticated and intellectually sounding garb that attempts to sow doubts in our faith, we need to obliterate it with the humble joy that derives from the realization that Amalek’s end is near.










Moshiach Matters

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