If you have raised a child, you have had this experience. Your little boy or girl came home from school with a sample of his or her artwork. To you it just looked like a hodge-podge of scribbles, random color smears. But your child exclaimed, “Look, Mommy, it is a picture of the trees and fields that we pass on the way to grandma’s house.” Or, “Wow, Daddy! I drew the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky!”
What do you do with the picture? What most of us would do, and certainly what my wife and I did many times with our kids, is to tell them how beautiful the picture is, how it looks just like what they describe it to be, and then post it on the refrigerator door or some other prominent place and show it off for all to see.
Imagine how devastating it is, on the other hand, if the child gleefully brings his work of art to the parents’ attention only to have the parents say, “Ugh! What an ugly picture! It’s just a bunch of smudges on paper! It doesn’t look at all like a forest or field! Sun and moon and stars, no way!”
Such a parent has extinguished the poor child’s exuberance. By cruelly scoffing at the youngster’s attempt to produce a work of art, the parent has seriously harmed the child’s self-esteem. The parents had an opportunity to deliver words of encouragement which would have had a long-term impact. Instead, they instilled in the child a lack of self-confidence which may very well have left a lifelong scar.
The Jewish tradition condemns the scoffer and sees in cynicism a powerful destructive force.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with this week’s Torah readings? Let me explain. Although the primary Torah portion this week is Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:2-30:10), we also will be reading an additional selection, and a very important one at that.
This week is one of the four special Sabbaths which precede the approach of Passover. Two weeks ago was Parshat Shekalim. This week is Parshat Zachor, where we read the story of Amalek’s treacherous attack upon the people of Israel as they marched through the wilderness (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
Amalek’s cowardly attack is to be remembered for all generations. There are many views as to what was so dastardly about his actions. Indeed, he is often portrayed in our tradition as the precursor to the genocidal murderers, the Hamans and Hitlers, of our tragic history.
But let me share with you a different view of the nature of Amalek’s crime. Our Sages in the MidrashTanchuma note that we encountered two «visitors» soon after we left Egypt, as we began our trek through the desert. One was Yitro, who ultimately joined us, and the other was Amalek who attacked us from the rear.
The Midrash Tanchuma draws upon the verse in Proverbs 19:25, which reads, “Beat the scoffer, but the simpleton will become clever.” The simpleton, says the Midrash, is Yitro, who overcame his prior beliefs and became clever. The scoffer, on the other hand, Amelek, was blinded to the miracles of the Exodus by his cynicism, and his evil was unredeemable.
Amalek is the ultimate scoffer, the paradigm of cynicism. He is described as asher karcha, usually translated as “the one who ‘surprised you,’ or ‘happened upon you [on the road as you left Egypt]’.” (Deuteronomy 25:18)
But Rashi offers other explanations, one of which is quite fascinating. Rashi suggests that asher karcha can mean “he who cooled you off,” and he offers the metaphor of a seething cauldron or tub of boiling water, which Amalek cooled off by jumping into it.
The seething cauldron can be a metaphor for either the fear with which the other witnessing nations were overcome, which was dissipated by Amalek’s precedent. Alternatively, it can be a metaphor for the bubbling enthusiasm of the triumphant Jewish people, which was diminished, perhaps permanently, by the effects of Amalek’s attack.
Rabbi Isaac Hutner, in his posthumously published essays on Purim, takes the latter approach. “The Jewish people,” he writes, “were full of a spiritual energy and optimism that was dimmed by the scoffer Amalek.”
The scoffing cynic has the ability to burst the bubble of enthusiasm with a shrug and a “so what?” or “big deal!” Amalek rained on our parade.
Sensitive students of the psychology of religion know the effects of cynicism and sarcasm upon spirituality and soulful moods. One such student was the famed 18th century pietist, Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzato, more commonly known as the Ramchal. This is what he writes in his masterpiece, Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just), towards the end of the fifth chapter:
Scoffing has a sinister and depraving effect. As a shield that is anointed with oil causes the arrows that strike it to glance off without touching the body, so scoffing renders reproof and chastisement ineffective. A single sarcasm or jest is liable to blight most of the spiritual zeal and enthusiasm which a man may have acquired from the experience that taught him to be particular and scrupulous in his actions.
As a result of ridicule he is apt to cast off all that he has learned so that there is no sign of it left in him, not because it is not instructive, nor because he lacks understanding, but because mockery has the power to destroy every vestige of conscience and reverence.
When we observe Parshat Zachor and read the story of Amalek in shul this Shabbat, we are commanded to forever remember what he did to our people. Of course, we will try to remember the primary lesson, namely to never forget the genocidal intentions of our enemies beginning with Amalek and continuing to this very day.
But it would also be instructive to remember Amalek as the cynical scoffer who would diminish our fervor and spirit. In remembering him in this manner, we would also do well to resolve that we ourselves are never guilty of mocking the accomplishments of others. We must be careful not to rain on the parade of other human beings, but rather to appreciate their accomplishments with neither envy nor disparagement.
We must find room on the doors of our refrigerators to proudly exhibit the childlike paintings of those who show them to us with enthusiasm.