Just Say No*

by Eliezer Segal

Exodus 17

8 And Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim.9 And Moses said to Joshua, Choose out for yourself mighty men, and go forth and set the army in array against Amalek tomorrow; and behold, I shall stand on the top of the hill, and the rod of God will be in my hand. 10 And Joshua did as Moses said to him, and he went out and set the army in array against Amalek, and Moses and Aaron and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 And it came to pass, when Moses lifted up his hands, Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hands, Amalek prevailed. 12 But the hands of Moses were heavy, and they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat upon it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on this side and the other on that, and the hands of Moses were supported till the going down of the sun. 13 And Joshua routed Amalek and all his people with the edge of the sword.

When faced with the first military crisis after leaving Egypt, Moses immediately turned to Joshua to lead the army. The Torah does not provide us with an explanation for this selection. Of course, we know that Joshua will later be singled out as Moses' successor, but that will not occur for forty years, and after Joshua has distinguished himself as one of the two spies to carry out his mission with honour. This is, in fact, the first time that he is ever mentioned in the Torah. Even if we allow that Joshua had risen to a position of leadership in his tribe, Ephraim, there is no obvious reason why he or his trine should have been more suitablethan others for this mission. At this point, we know nothing about Joshua that would justify Moses's decision to put him at the head of the first Hebrew army.

This is a question that was posed by the rabbis in the midrash, and they proposed various solutions. Several of their interpretations do not allude to any personal qualifications that Joshua may have had, but rather to his tribal identity. As a descendant of Joseph, he personified some of the qualities displayed by his ancestor.

In this spirit, we read the following comment in the midrash:

Why "to Joshua"? --He said to him: Your ancestor said (Genesis 42:18) "For I fear God"; while with reference to this nation it says (Deuteronomy 25:18) "they had no fear of God." Let the grandson of the one who declared "For I fear God" come and exact retribution from the one about whom it says "they had no fear of God."

Now this kind of midrashic symmetry has an undeniable esthetic appeal to it, but it doesn't quite resolve the difficulties. Although Joseph came up with the appropriate quote, he could hardly claim a monopoly on the fear of God, when compared with his illustrious forbears.

An extraordinary insight into this midrash is ascribed to the Maggid of Dubno. He reminds us that when the rabbis compared passages from the Bible, they were interested in something more than the similarities in the phraseology. In order to fully appreciate their comparison, we have to look carefully at the context.

The quote from Joseph appears in the context of his conversation with his brothers when he first recognizes that they have come to Egypt in search of food. At this stage of the narrative, they have no idea who the person is with whom they are dealing, and Joseph is pleased to maintain the appearance that he is a pureblooded Egyptian viceroy. It is therefore especially significant that Joseph, in spite of his concern not to expose his Israelite identity, felt that it was appropriate to openly profess his religious convictions.

Underlying that statement is the assumption that fear of God is a quality that is not expected only in Jews, but rather it is a universal human virtue.

According to the Maggid, this is what the midrash had in mind when it said that Joseph's spiritual heir was the most fitting person to lead the campaign against a nation that had not fear of God.

I think that this understanding of the issue is especially relevant in our world of multiculturalism and moral relativism. We have all been taught to respect the cultures and beliefs of others, and not to impose our values on those who differ from us. The battle against Amalek must stand as a reminder that there are limits to tolerance, and that at times we are commanded to take stands against positions that are simply unacceptable. The minimal standard of basic human decency is defined as "fear of God." I don't think it requires that people subscribe to a particular set of religious beliefs or observances, but it does demand a fundamental moral sensitivity that arises from a recognition of the sanctity of human life. Fear of God is not to be equated with a theoretical belief in the existence of a deity; and I am certain that there are plenty of people around who invoke God's name constantly though their behaviour does not attest to a deeply rooted fear of God; even as I have encountered deeply God-fearing individuals who insist that they are atheists. I'm not certain that I would be able to give a clear definition for that quality, but regrettably, there is no lack of instances where it is unquestionably absent.

The liberal commitment to pluralism--an ideology with which I enthusiastically identify--can be taken to absurd extremes, to a degree that often translates into moral paralysis. I have heard intellectuals argue that we have no business interfering in the affairs of people, because in their culture it is perfectly legitimate to murder heretics, abuse women, submit to sadistic tyrants or to explode themselves in crowds of innocent civilians. "What right do we have to impose our Western values on other people's traditions?"

Perhaps a similar lesson can be learned from the story of Mordecai and Haman. Presumably, Mordecai had no intrinsic objection to serving as a faithful courtier in the entourage of a non-Jewish king, even though Ahasuerus practiced a different religion-- as long as the monarch conformed to basic principles of decency. However, he immediately recognized that Haman, the heir to the Amalekite outlook, was utterly lacking in fear of God--an assessment that was borne out in the effortlessness with which the villain would later condemn an entire nation to genocide. With such a person there was no possibility of cooperation.

Joseph, Joshua and Mordecai all serve as reminder to us that there are limits to toleration--as one of my teachers used to put it: If your mind is too open, it'll catch cold! There are manifestations of cynical evil and godlessness that are utterly unacceptable, and must be combated.

In our post-modern culture, this is an imperative that is all too easy for us to forget.


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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca


*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, March 11, 2006 .