"The Words That We Speak"
Thoughts on Parashat BeShalah 2022
Following the battle against Amalek, God instructed Moshe:
Write this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Yehoshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. (Shemot 17:14)
Remembering Amalek is a unique missvah. While God commanded that Moshe write all the missvot in the Torah, this one entailed “writing in a document” and “reading aloud,” as well. What is the meaning of this dual directive to both write and speak about Amalek?
Several years ago, I unexpectedly discovered the significant difference between the words that we read and those which we speak. I was asked to teach a class to a large group of adults, on the topic of “How is the Talmud Relevant to the 21st Century?” I prepared several seemingly “theoretical” discussions which are found in the Gemara, planning to show their central role in determining contemporary issues. I was barely through my introductory sentence, though, when a man stood up from his seat. “I don’t understand the purpose of this class!” he shouted, “Learning Talmud is necessary because it informs us of our national history.” I objected that I it would probably be easier to understand our past by reading a book written by a historian – on history. A woman chimed in, “The Talmud is important because it teaches us how to think.” I told her, as well, that she’d probably prefer a book on Jewish philosophy in order to learn how to think as a Jew. The men and women broke into a chaotic debate on this issue for the next few minutes, each one yelling at the next. The room then fell to a silence. Everyone looked in my direction for perspective.
I paused for a minute to collect my thoughts. Clearing my throat, I began to recall the first siyum that I made as a young man. It was on Masekhet Bava Kama. I remembered how as I stepped down from the podium on that day, my grandfather approached me, tears in his eyes. “The only masekhet that I learned in Romania before the War was Bava Kama,” he told me, “Listening to you talk about it now, I felt that world which I’d lost come alive.”
I explained to the class that while the many books that I own on history and philosophy are for reference – to research a particular era or idea, Gemara is my life. It is for me – and our nation for over a thousand years – a “way of speech.” We’ve viewed the world through the lenses of Talmud, discovered God’s ways on its pages, and found ourselves in its words. Gemara is different than the many books which collect dust on our shelves because its words transcend the pages they’re written on. They express our sense of self and our way of life.
Write this in a document, and read it aloud to Yehoshua…
God demanded that Am Yisrael remember Amalek during their first days in the desert. Write this in a document. He taught them, though, that the lesson of Amalek is greater than just a fulfillment as the other missvot which are written in the Torah. Remembering Amalek represents the pursuit of goodness and the destruction of evil from this world. It is our moral compass. And so, remembering Amalek determines how we speak about ourselves. We articulate our values and spread our mission through its words. Read it aloud to Yehoshua.
We fulfill the Torah’s lesson from Amalek in so many ways. We spread goodness by speaking words of gratitude to the cashier, smiling at the people on line, and helping the elderly cross the street. We obliterate evil by repairing our fractured relationships and brokering peace amongst others. And we do so by investing our time and money to bettering the health and lives of others. But vanquishing evil and practicing goodness aren’t just words that we read and aspire to achieve. They’re our way of life and mode of existence. They are the words that we speak.