Sermon: What Amalek did on the road (and how it is still happening)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 24 February 2018

This sermon refers to the Kollot haftarah which is taken from rabbinic literature. You can find the text below.
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There are two, very different, versions of the Amalek story in the Torah.

In the version found in Exodus 17 – va’yavo Amalek vayilachem im Yisrael: Amalek came and fought with Israel. This was a set piece battle, planned in advance. The day before, Moses instructs Joshua to go and lead the fighting, while he will go up a nearby hill and hold his arms aloft.
But in the version we read for Shabbat Zachor, there is no warning. Rather, we are told to “remember what Amalek did on the journey after your leaving Egypt”, “asher karcha baderech” – that he (as it’s normally translated) “chanced upon”, perhaps “surprised”, Israel on the road.

Our haftarah this morning, taken from Midrash Tanchuma, is one of many midrashim that seeks to reconcile these two texts.
Its subtext, the textual problem with which it grapples, is this: if “asher karcha baderech” means a chance encounter, or a surprise attack, then that which is written in Exodus cannot be true. But if the version in Exodus is accurate what does “asher karcha baderech” really mean?

Through its answers to this question (and like all good midrash, this text is polyvocal, giving multiple possible explanations side by side) we might come to understand a little further why it is that Amalek becomes such a symbol for the bible and rabbinic tradition, why he is to be remembered.

Tanchuma gives three possible explanations of the expression, each understanding the word karcha as coming from a different Hebrew root.

The first is given in the name of Rabbi Yehudah. Karcha, he argues, comes from the Hebrew root Koof Reish Hei – the root meaning of which is to encounter, or to happen by chance – (which, for what it is worth, is the root of karcha).
But, Koof Reish Hei also has an association with, how should I put it, an accident of the night, nocturnal pollution – in Hebrew mikreih-Lailah. And so, to Rabbi Yehudah, “asher karcha baderech” means “he defiled you on the way”. That is where Amalek’s evil lay.

To Rabbi Nehemiah, Amalek’s evil is in the way he picks off the Israelites – not, as the biblical text suggests, that he picks off the tired stragglers on the way, but that he deliberately, and manipulatively entices Israelites out from the protection of the divine presence.
Nehemiah understands the root as koof reish aleph – to read, or to call. “Asher karcha baderech” means “he called to you on the way” – He read up on the Israelites and called them out by name.

The rabbis, though, have a very different explanation. They see karcha as coming from the Hebrew root Koof reish reish, to make cold – the source of the modern Hebrew word Kar, which means ‘cold’. Amalek, they suggest, “cooled the Israelites on the way”.

What can this possibly mean?
According to the midrash, when Israel came out from Egypt, all the nations of the world were in awe of the Exodus, of God’s power. Israel were boiling hot, untouchable. But it only took one public act to cool them to the touch. Yes, Amalek got scalded in the process, but the way in which Israel was seen was changed.

As the scholar Nechama Liebowitz put it, the world “as a whole might have taken one great step further and acknowledged the sovereignty of the God of justice and truth, but then along came Amalek and, unrestrained by the dread and awe that kept all the nations of the world in check – jumped, as it were,… into the boiling cauldron…
What was there to fear? That a people had gone forth from the land of Egypt?
…Now they were wandering in the wilderness, weary and struggling. Why should they not be spoiled and smitten? This was the way of the world.
In this manner the moment of awe at the mighty hand of God passed away and the atmosphere of astonishment… evaporated. The world returned to its former rut, to its idols of gold and silver, faith in mortal power and brute force. The opportunity had been lost. Who had been responsible? Amalek.”

Through one destructive act of one powerful human being, the course of our narrative was changed, the world was less good than it might have been.

When people speak of the evil of Amalek they normally refer to what he did, the evil of the act, in how he picked on the weak without fear of God. Or, sometimes they place him in a line with Pharaoh, with Hitler, as somehow a paradigm in his relationship with Israel, with the Jewish people.

But the rabbis speak of what he made possible.
The example of one person can shatter our understanding of what is acceptable, can remove obstacles to horrific possibilities, can make almost mundane that which should never be considered normal.

We live in a time of such Amalekites. Things which should be unimaginable are almost normal because of individual powerful people.
The use of indiscriminate bombing, of chemical weapons in a civil war. Assad, Putin are Amalekites, challenging the assumptions of the long peace, cooling that which is hot.

Our norms of behaviour are changed – how we speak with one another, how we use social media. Donald Trump is Amalek – changing, perhaps forever, the way in which political discourse happens in the West. Almost every day, it seems, making acceptable that which was once too hot to touch.
Nigel Farage was Amalek, cooling that which should have been hot to the touch in how we speak about immigration, about race, in this country.
George Bush and Tony Blair, painful as this is to me, like Amalek, changed the course of history, discrediting liberal interventionism for a generation.

Of course, the phenomenon can work the other way, too, challenging those in power. From Rosa Parks to Rose McGowan, that which was once hot can be made cool by the bravery of individuals willing to take the risk of jumping into the boiling pot. It can also be for the good. Without the person of Mikhail Gorbachev, willing to take the risk of getting burned, the last almost 30 years would have been very different.

And this is the message of this Midrash. It speaks of the power of the individual – especially those in positions of responsibility. Their ability to change the path of human history for good and for ill.
And with that power comes the same fate as Amalek – lo tishkach.
Amaleks, those who advertently or inadvertently change the temperature of society, who alter the tone of human relations, who make acceptable that which should never be so – they are destined not to be forgotten.

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Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tetzei 9

“That he encountered you [on the road]” (Deuteronomy 25:18)

Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Nehemiah and the Rabbis differ in their interpretation of “karcha”.

Rabbi Yehudah says:
Karcha [means] he defiled you.
As it says, [a man] that is not clean by reason of mik’reih-lailah – a night-time accident, [must leave the camp] (Deuteronomy 23:11).

Rabbi Nehemiah says:
[Karcha means] actually that he called to you.
What did Amalek do?
He got up and went down to the archives of Egypt, and took the records of the tribes, in which their names were engraved with their [daily] measure of bricks.
He positioned himself just beyond the cloud [that protected Israel] and he called to them, “Reuben! Simeon! Levi! – come out. We are your brothers and want to make business with you.”
When they went out, they would kill them.

The Sages say:
[Karcha means] he cooled you before others.
Rabbi Hunia said: To what can this be compared? To a bathtub of boiling water into which no living creature could descend.
One wicked person came and jumped into it. Even though he was scalded, he cooled it before others.
So, too, when Israel went out from Egypt, God parted the sea before and the Egyptians were drowned in it. Fear fell upon all the nations of the
World, as it says “Now are the clans of Edom dismayed; the tribes of Moab – trembling grips them” (Exodus 15:15).
When Amalek came confronted them, even though he fell at their hands, he cooled them down before the nations of the world.