It’s two weeks before Rosh Hashanah (Can you believe it? Ach!). Clearly Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. Except in Judaism we have two New Years (actually four, but two big ones), the other being the first day of Nissan, the month in which Pesach falls. And in both preceding months, Elul and Adar ,we read a special passage, fulfilling the Torah Commandment to remember Amalek.
If you’re not familiar, Amalek is the arch enemy of the Jewish people, a nation dedicated to ridding the world of conscience, morality, and awareness of God. No longer a singular nation, Rabbis now equate the Amalakite with anti-semitism such as the Nazis. The verse in this week’s parsha Ki Seitzei recounts when the Jews were attacked by their ancient enemy the first time, upon leaving Egypt.
You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, how he chanced upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God. (Devarim 25:17-18)
Amalek Chanced Upon Us
What does that mean? Chance? Were the Jews just walking through the desert and the army of Amalek bumped into us like an ex at a cocktail party? With the Jews surrounded by towering clouds of glory and following a pillar of fire, I’m pretty sure in the midst of the Sinai desert, they’d be pretty noticeable from miles away.
Rashi comments on this; קָרְךָ is connected with the word מִקְרֶה meaning “a chance occurrence.”
But isn’t this notion of chance counter to how we are supposed to understand how God runs the world? We’re supposed to believe that God is involved in every moment, knowing every detail from the beginning to the end of creation. That means nothing is random. In fact there’s a verse in the Talmud that says, “If you reach into your pocket to pull out a quarter and you accidentally grab a nickel, God is sending you a message.” (Arachin 16b) So if that’s our outlook, why is the Torah using the word chance?
The Torah isn’t saying the Jews “happened upon” Amalek as a statement of fact, but instead to point out a perspective. Amalek as an entity was against everything the Jews stand for: conscience, justice, and most importantly, meaning. In Megillas Esther, the story of Purim, Haman decides the day upon which he will exterminate the Jews via a lottery, specifically to tie their destruction to random chance and not divine plan. Haman was said to be a direct descendent of Amalek (and it’s just before Purim that we read the passage above publicly in Adar).
When you look at the world as being governed by chance, then it frees you from meaning and responsibility. I’m not saying that you should scrutinize every odd thing that happens to you, a person can drive themselves crazy that way. But it is essential to reflect upon your own actions and acknowledge their consequences. That’s one of the ways God communicates with us.
Two Sets of Measurements
Just before the verse about Amalek the Torah gives a mitzvah about weights and measures.
You shall not keep in your pouch two different weights, one large and one small. You shall not keep in your house two different measures, one large and one small. Rather, you shall have a full and honest weight, and a full and honest measure, in order that your days will be prolonged on the land which the Lord, your God, gives you. For whoever does these things, whoever perpetrates such injustice, is an abomination to the Lord, your God. (Devarim 25: 13-16)
The essence of the mitzvah is about conducting business honestly. Don’t use a set of inaccurate weights to cheat your customers. And clearly this applies to not just occupations that literally use weights and measures, but taxes, reporting mileage driven, hours billed, etc. Seems simple enough.
However, the Torah really wants to emphasized this mitzvah. And not just because if a Jew were caught cheating in business how much of a Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) would it be? According to the Talmud (Shabbos 31a) “Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?” is the first question asked when an individual is brought before the court of heaven.
But if that weren’t enough, the reason why this mitzvah precedes the verse about Amalek is to instill in us that when we act dishonest in business, we lose the divine protection from God and that brings upon “misfortune.” When we are honest and being the messengers of God’s miracles, we’ll be honored. When we are selfish and we cheat, then we will be the victim of anti-semitism.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski taught that there was another dimension to this mitzvah. The verse says “two different weights, one large and one small.” His insight was that this didn’t just pertain to business, but to all judgments. That when we look at others, we can be very strict. But when it comes to ourselves we can make all sorts of excuses, creating a double standard. But if we flipped it, holding ourselves accountable and giving others the break, that would also protect us from the fierce attacks of Amalek.
Staying on Fire after the New Year
Rashi gives another translation of what the word קָרְךָ means. Not chanced but “cooled.” When the Jews left Egypt they were untouchable. The largest nation of the world crumbled as the Jews walked away victorious, the Sea split before them, and they were closer to God than ever. What country would dare oppose the Jews at that point? Then Amalek comes along and attacks them. The Jews win, but it’s hardly a flawless victory. From that attack Amalek proved the Jews weren’t invincible. Like throwing a big block of ice into a pot of boiling water, it cooled them down, putting a damper on what had been a spectacular passion.
When we come out of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we have the chance to be at the highest level of the whole year. However, if we aren’t careful, within hours, doubt can creep back in and we can lose it. So just before, we read and remember that if we aren’t careful, we can always be susceptible to the temptations of greed, fudging the books a little, and forgetting who is really in charge.
There will always be opportunities to get ahead by less than perfectly honest tactics. Will you get caught? Probably not. Doesn’t everyone else do it? Almost certainly. Are the banks, faceless corporations, and mega movie studios using far more dishonest tactics to give themselves billions of dollars in profits and bonuses? I’d bet the farm on it.
But when we stand before God on Rosh Hashanah to ask for another year of life, what exactly are we asking for? A chance to have a bigger checkbook? Or a chance to help make the world resemble one of justice and mercy? If you believe God runs the world, you’ll realize there is no “chance.” Helping the world will be a guarantee.