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Saturday 26th August 2023 9th Elul 5783

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19; Isaiah 54:1-10; Matthew 24:29-42


Many years ago, when I was just beginning the coursework for my MBA, I was enrolled in an introductory course called Business Management 601. On the very first day the professor went around the room and had everyone introduce themselves and talk about what they hoped to get out of the program.

When he got to me he said, “Young man after you introduce yourself perhaps you can explain to the class what is the meaning of the hat that you’re wearing, and why some members of your faith only wear it in the synagogue.” Well, for whatever reason – most likely a high degree of immaturity – I did not take kindly to the question. After a brief introduction I responded that the yarmulke (skullcap; kippe) represents that God Almighty is constantly above us and that we need to be cognizant that we are always in His presence. I then acerbically (and foolishly) continued, that perhaps some Jews believed that God was only present in the synagogue.

Unsurprisingly, my relationship with this professor did not improve much over the next 15 weeks. I said a couple of other patently stupid things and finished the semester with a B even though all of my in-class work had received A’s. I was pretty devastated. The most important management lesson I learned in Business Management 601 was the importance of properly managing my mouth.

Returning to the yarmulke, it is a contraction of the Hebrew words yoreh and malka and means “awe of the king.” Thus, the purpose of wearing the yarmulke, as I explained in class some 35 years ago, serves to remind us that we are constantly in the presence of the Almighty.

We are living in His world.

At the very end of this week’s Torah portion we find the story of the Amalekites ambushing and attacking the Jewish nation shortly after they left Egypt:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt; When he encountered you on the way when you were tired and feeble, he struck at those lagging in the rear, and he did not fear God” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).

The Jewish people are enjoined to remember for all of eternity the treachery of the Amalekites who, without provocation, viciously attacked the newly minted Jewish nation when they left Egypt. My brilliant father points out that the Torah levels a very odd accusation at the Amalekites: “and he did not fear God.” Aside from the fact that it seems to have little to do with the treachery of the Amalekites towards the Jewish people, it also seems to be a misplaced denunciation.

As I have written in prior columns, Judaism is unique inasmuch as one of the core beliefs of the faith is that one need not be Jewish to be eligible to earn a share in the “World to Come.” According to Maimonides, non-Jews who faithfully obey the seven Noachide laws also earn a place in “Heaven.”

The seven Noachide laws are 1) no idolatry 2) no cursing God 3) no murder 4) no sexual immorality 5) no stealing 6) no consuming flesh off a living animal 7) an obligation to set up a legal system and courts.

Nowhere in the seven Noachide laws does it say that non-Jews are obligated to have awe of the Almighty. Jews, by contrast, are commanded to have awe and fear of the Almighty – it is one of the 613 mitzvot (commandments). If this is true, why does the Torah criticize the Amalekites for not fearing God?

Regarding the seven Noachide laws, Maimonides says, “Anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfillment of these seven mitzvot and is precise in their observance is considered one of ‘the pious among the gentiles’ and will merit a share in the World to Come. This applies only when he accepts them and fulfills them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah […] However, if he fulfills them out of intellectual conviction, he is not of ‘the pious among the gentiles,’ nor of their wise men” (Yad Hilchos Melachim 8:11).

Maimonides has a very important caveat regarding the observance of the seven Noachide laws – they must be fulfilled with the belief that they were given to the world by God. If one fulfills the seven Noachide laws merely because they seem to make sense as social justice laws, he is not eligible for a share in the World to Come.

This is very strange; wouldn’t anyone who figured out the seven laws that God wants to the world to abide by through his own logic be considered intelligent? Why does Maimonides say that he is not wise?

We find a similarly fascinating concept in the Book of Esther;

“On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine” (Esther 1:10). According to the sages, the seventh day of King Achashveirosh’s banquet was also the seventh day of the week, that is, Shabbat. Rava, the great Talmudic sage of the 3rd century, contrasts, “When the Israelites eat and drink on Shabbat, they utter words of Torah and praises to God. But when the non-Jewish people eat and drink on this day, they begin with indecent talk and licentiousness” (Talmud Megillah 12b).

And so it was at the banquet of Achashveirosh, where an argument erupted among the men about which women of the world were the most beautiful. The conversation ends with Achashveirosh ordering the queen to appear before the gathered men to prove that the women of Mede were the most beautiful.

Why does the Talmud contrast the Shabbat of the Jews and the fact that Achashveirosh’s banquet also happened to be on Shabbat? They had no obligation to keep Shabbat or any of its holiness, why do we hold them to any higher status just because it was Shabbat?

The answer is that Jews celebrate and observe Shabbat as an affirmation that God created the world. We rest because He rested, and we celebrate the day as being in His presence as it is the day that God’s presence is more manifest in the world. We sing hymns and praises and speak Torah because we are celebrating living in God’s world and His morality.

If you live in God’s world, His morality is immutable and enduring. We are bound not by what we want to do but rather by a “higher authority.” We don’t get to change the rules just because we’d like to do something different. We must follow the Torah and the moral code found therein. We don’t get to change societal moral values based on the lowest common denominator i.e., “what can we all agree upon?” Rather, we are bound to God’s value system found in the Torah.

Similar to our Shabbat, Achashveirosh’s party was also celebrating his supreme dominion; that he was the ultimate king and ruler. This is what the Talmud is contrasting. They were celebrating that he was the final arbiter of societal values. What was the first thing they did? They sank into lewdness, immorality, and objectified women – to the point that the queen herself was ordered to appear before them naked!

Any society that invents its own morality can justify doing whatever they want. One hundred years ago the Germans, one of the most advanced societies in terms of philosophy, science, and legal systems, somehow managed to justify the cold-blooded murder of an entire race and anyone else they felt were inferior. They convinced themselves that those who were “other” were vermin and worthy of extermination.

This is why Maimonides rules that anyone who observes the seven Noachide laws merely because they make sense is not a wise person. Any society that can have a shifting moral code based on what people feel should be the moral standards is a foolish one indeed. This is how it came to be that fifty years ago abortion was murder, then it was not, and today it’s somewhere in the middle depending on where you live. It’s ludicrous.

This is also why the Amalekites were criticized for not fearing God.

Their gripe with the Jewish people stems from the fact that they want to live in a Godless world. The Jewish people, particularly after all the miracles in Egypt, are living examples of God’s presence and involvement in the world.

The Amalekites cannot bear to exist in a world where there are Jews because we stand in opposition to what they believe. It is for this reason we can NEVER forget what they did to our people when we left Egypt.

This equally to all who are gathered from among the nations and joined to the Olive Tree of Israel. The spirit of Amalek resists all Gd-fearers.



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