In an age when every day feels like a week, and every week seems like a month, I am looking back to what seems like a far-off distant memory when we dressed in costumes and celebrated the joyous holiday of Purim. I recall the Shabbat prior to our carnivals and megillah readings when we read the story of Amalek, the Jewish people’s arch enemy, who attacked the ancient Israelites from behind, killing the stragglers.
Amalek and his followers killed the weak and infirm who struggled to keep up during our people’s wandering in the wilderness. He is forever marked as evil. Throughout the generations we saw in our many enemies the image of Amalek, reimagining him first as Haman, and then we envisaged his descendants as the Romans, the Crusaders and in modern times the Nazis. We saw in him the evil antisemites who attacked and killed us again and again.
We have perpetually sought to blot out his name and his memory. And yet he reappears in every generation.
I never imagined, until now and at this very moment, that our age-old enemy could be microscopic, that he could attack when I reach out and give a friend a hug, when I console the bereaved with a kiss, when I reach out to a neighbor with a handshake, when I congratulate a colleague with a high five. And yet there he is, in our own generation, present once again, but now frightfully unseen.
He is lurking, and hiding, in the most important of human gestures. He stands before us, hidden, but feared. The greatest threat we have ever faced is invisible. And now, we can no longer point a finger at others and see our enemy in the face of another. We do not even know where to point. And so, we flail about, casting blame in all directions, disinfecting this and that, keeping our distance from friends and neighbors.
Amalek has changed his guise. He might once again attack us from behind. He has upended our lives.
I am not an alarmist by nature. My temperament is not governed by fear. And yet, this week, this age-old terror became manifest. How many of those I love, how many of those I care about, might be straggling behind? How many might be attacked by these present-day unseen Amalekites?
I try to summon the strength of the past. I have lived through 9-11. I have been near terrorist attacks in Jerusalem when buses exploded, and restaurants were targeted. I have sheltered in bomb shelters when Hamas fired missiles. To be sure, these events have left their scars. There was a brief time when my heart would race if I found myself standing next to an idling city bus. Yet, we carried on. And now, when looking back, these events appeared brief, momentary obstacles.
At present, there appears no end within sight, there appears no cure within reach. Never before has our interconnected world been so dangerously, and glaringly, interconnected, and then seemingly overnight, as borders are closed and visitors ushered out, as we seek to maintain six feet of distance between friends and even family members, become so quickly, and painstakingly, disconnected.
And so, what are we to do?
We must do what is contrary to our nature. We must practice social distancing. I admit. I am pained by this idea. I abhor this notion. We must keep our distance. I feel lost when I cannot offer hugs. I feel as though my right arm is broken now that I cannot offer embraces of congratulation and hugs of consolation. If I cannot do so, people we love might become gravely ill. People we know might even die.
Is it not painfully obvious that we are responsible for each other? People’s lives depend on the choices each and every one of us now makes. There are invisible lines connecting us with those we do not know and those we come into connect. Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, the stragglers stand nearby.
Hasidic commentators suggest that we should not blame Amalek and his followers for their attack. We should instead look inward. We did not protect the weak and infirm. We allowed them to remain vulnerable. We let the evil in. We can now, still, heed this counsel. I stand at a distance when officiating at funerals. I offer consolation by phone. We pray together on Zoom.
We may not be able to stand side by side, we may not be able to offer each other hugs and kisses, but we must continue to be defined by compassion. We must figure out new ways of expressing concern. We must be supported by community. We still need each other! And so again, we must uncover new ways of holding each other close. This is how we will continue to do what we have always done.
And we must remain governed by facts. We must be guided by medicine. We must heed the advice of scientists. Again, I offer an admission. It is a frightening moment when medical science is playing catch up, when the information offered by even our most trusted experts change day by day and hour by hour. But the alternative is far more frightening. Misinformation swirls around us. Gibberish continues to masquerade as fact. Lies are presented with authority. Ignore these posts. Discount the latest and greatest cure all’s. Speak to doctors. Pay heed to the directives from the Centers for Disease Control.
I have little patience for faith without science. Praying is not all we must do. Then again, my spirit will not be sustained by science without faith. I turn as I often do to my hero, Moses Maimonides, among the greatest rabbis who ever lived, and the leading physician in twelfth-century Spain and then Egypt.
He writes: “People frequently think that the evils in the world are more numerous than the good things.” (Guide of the Perplexed III:12) And so, it appears right now. Maimonides is speaking to us. He is talking about today. He then offers us helpful advice. He implores us to look beyond our individual worries and concerns.
The more we need something the more God created an abundance of these things. Air is the most plentiful of God’s creations. Relish in your breath. Go outside for walks. Breath in the Springtime air. Give thanks to God for the air coursing through your nostrils. Water is the next most plentiful. Peer at the waters of the Long Island Sound. Take in how the waves lap at the shores. Drink a glass of water, slowly and thoughtfully. Shout blessings to our creator.
Food is also required and thankfully, plentiful. Maybe there is no longer all the delicacies we once enjoyed or the foods we ate at the restaurants at which we only weeks ago dined, but there is food enough to sustain us. That is why Judaism offers all manners of blessings for food. God provides us with our most basic needs. Too often, and most especially during times such as these, we forget God’s bounty is ever-present. We become blinded by the difficulties, worries, challenges and evils all around us. Amalek once again clouds our vision.
Maimonides offers needed medicine. He points us in a helpful direction. Faith is a decision. It must be willed.
Thus, the move of faith is to see in present circumstances moments of historical significance. That is why it is curative, and redemptive, to see Amalek once again lurking about. When we place those lenses over our eyes–even though they may at present dim our happiness–we are better able to declare we will survive. Why? Because, if for no other reason, we survived then. We defeated Amalek then so we will defeat him once again.
That move requires an act of will. It is what is demanded of us now. Otherwise, we will remain beset by terror.
The lesson of Amalek is as important as ever. We have always persevered.
We will get through this. Why? Because we did before. We must always wrap our hope in our history. That is the best medicine I can now offer.
That hope is what will rescue us. It always has. It always will.
Rabbi Steven Heneson Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor, a vibrant synagogue on Long Island’s North Shore. His writing appears in a variety of publications including Reform Judaism and The Times of Israel. He also blogs at rabbimoskowitz.com