Parashat Zakhor: "Because They Tested God"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

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Dedicated in memory of Matt Eisenfeld z"l and Sara Duker z"l on their 20th yahrzeit.
Though their lives were tragically cut short in the bombing of Bus 18 in Jerusalem, their memory continues to inspire.
Am Yisrael would have benefitted so much from their contributions.Yehi zikhram barukh. –
Yael and Reuven Ziegler
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Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

"Remember that which Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt." (Devarim 25:17)

As we know, part of the commandment to remember the episode of Amalek entails remembering the elements that led up to the war with them. In his comments on Amalek’s attack of Bnei Yisrael (Shemot 17), Rashi elaborates:

"'And Amalek came' – this parasha comes right after the preceding verse ['… they tested God, saying: Is God in our midst, or not?' (Shemot 17:7)], as if God is saying: I am always in your midst and ready to provide for all your needs, yet you say, 'Is God then in our midst or not?' By your lives, a dog will come and bite you, and you will cry out to Me, and you will know where I am.

This may be compared to a king who placed his son upon his shoulders and set out on a journey. The son would see some object and say, 'Father, pick up that object and give it to me' – and he would give it to him, and so a second time, and a third time. Then they came across someone and the son asked him, 'Have you seen my father?' His father said to him, 'Don't you know where I am?' He cast the son off his shoulders, and a dog came and bit him." (Rashi, Shemot 17:8)

According to this midrash, Am Yisrael had forgotten God despite all the great miracles that He had performed for them, and therefore Amalek came, to "remind" them Who had provided everything for them until now. However, it is difficult to accept what the midrash seems to be saying: how is it possible that Am Yisrael could have questioned God's presence and His Divine Providence after witnessing all of the miracles?

Of course Am Yisrael knew that God was with them and watching over them – during the good times. This was clear to them, for example, during the Exodus from Egypt, or when the manna descended for them. But whenever they encountered a problem, such as a shortage of water, doubts would arise amongst the people as to whether God was with them in their distress as well.

Indeed, the journey in the wilderness was not an easy one: "He afflicted you and caused you hunger, and fed you with manna which you had not known, nor had your fathers known [it]" (Devarim 8:3). It was not a simple matter to know and believe that even in the midst of such tribulation, God was with them. However, God brought Amalek in order to teach the nation that even in situations such as these, one may not under any circumstances test God.

The Chazon Ish, in his work Emunah u-Bitachon, explains the meaning of the concept of 'bitachon' (trust). He asserts that it means trusting that all that happens is the will of God – even if some events are not pleasant ones. Rav Lichtenstein notes that others maintain a different view: trust in God does not mean knowing that even bad things are from God, but rather knowing that all that happens is ultimately good. (Rav Lichtenstein himself develops a third view on the subject – see here.) This view relies on the following Gemara (Berakhot 10a): the prophet Yishayahu did not want to give his daughter in marriage to Chizkiyahu, claiming that there was already a Divine decree that Chizkiyahu’s descendants would not be righteous. The Gemara concludes that Yishayahu acted improperly, since "even if a sharp sword is at a person's neck, he should not give up hope of [Divine] mercy." Hence, one should always anticipate that all will turn out well.

To my view, this Gemara does not represent proof. The discussion there does not imply that one should trust in God that everything that happens is for the good; it says that a person should never give up hope of supplication and prayer. According to the Gemara, even if the situation seems hopeless, there is still benefit in praying to God and asking for His compassion.

Periodically I read in the newspaper that various rabbis insist, regarding potential historical events, that they know what will or won’t happen. Such statements will ultimately cause terrible crises for members of the religious public who innocently believe them. How can one set conditions for God? How can one say that God wants a certain thing and not something else, and that we know what He wants? I remember that before the Holocaust similar views were expressed by rabbis who claimed that God would not lend a hand in the annihilation of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, we know what happened. After the Holocaust, can anyone stand up and announce that he knows God's plans? As the Gemara records Yishayahu rebuking Chizkiyahu, "What have you to do with God's secrets?"

I remember that there were statements along the lines of "It will never happen" prior to the evacuation of Yamit. Then, too, rabbis proclaimed that God would not allow the evacuation to take place. Afterwards there was a great crisis amongst the leadership. I believe that the results of this crisis were mitigated somewhat by the Lebanon War, which broke out immediately afterwards, such that the country found itself facing more serious problems.

At that time, Rav Avraham Shapira zt"l summoned all the rashei yeshivot and told them that he felt that there was a problem with the faith of some of the rabbis, since they thought that the evacuation would indeed proceed. I stood up and said that the Gemara teaches that a guest must think to himself that "All the efforts exerted by the host were on my behalf." I explained that I felt exactly as the Gemara described it – that this entire gathering had been arranged just for me, since I myself truly believed that the evacuation was going to happen. How can one possibly know what God's plans are, and how He intends to run the world?

As noted at the outset, when we read parashat Zakhor it is necessary to remember also what led to the war against Amalek. The cause was a lack of faith in God, and the thought that we can test God and tell him, "If 'X' happens, then You are with us; if it does not happen, then You are not." We may not say that we know God's will. Doing so leads us into terrible problems. We must pray and beseech God that good things should happen, but never say, heaven forefend, that we know what God is planning to do, and to test Him to see whether He is with us or not.

(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Zakhor 5753 [1993].)