The people of Israel journeyed . . . and they camped in Rephidim . . .

[Moses] named the place “Challenge and Strife,” because of the strife of the people of Israel and their challenging of G‑d, saying, “Is G‑d amongst us or not?”

Then came Amalek and attacked Israel in Rephidim . . . (Exodus 17:1–8)

Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt. That he encountered you on the way, and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear G‑d. Therefore . . . you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget. (Deuteronomy 25:17–19)

The Jewish people had just experienced one of the greatest manifestations of divine power in history. Ten supernatural plagues had compelled the mightiest nation on earth to free them from their servitude. The sea had split before them, and manna had rained from the heavens to nourish them. How could they possibly question, “Is G‑d amongst us or not?”

Yet such is the nature of doubt. There is doubt that is based on a rational query. There is doubt that rises from the doubter’s subjective motives and desires. But then there is doubt pure and simple: irrational doubt, doubt more powerful than reason. Doubt that neutralizes the most convincing arguments and the most inspiring experiences with nothing more than a cynical shrug.

Such was the doubt that left the Jewish people susceptible to attack from Amalek. Amalek, in the spiritual sphere, is the essence of baseless, irrational indifference. In the words of the Midrash:

To what is the incident (of Amalek) comparable? To a boiling tub of water which no creature was able to enter. Along came one evildoer and jumped into it. Although he was burned, he cooled it for the others.

So, too, when Israel came out of Egypt, and G‑d split the sea before them and drowned the Egyptians within it, the fear of them fell upon all the nations. But when Amalek came and challenged them, although he received his due from them, he cooled1 the awe of the nations of the world for them.2

This is why Amalek, and what he represents, constitutes the archenemy of the Jewish people and their mission in life. As Moses proclaimed following the war with Amalek, “G‑d has sworn by His throne; G‑d is at war with Amalek for all generations.”3 Truth can refute the logical arguments offered against it. Truth can prevail even over man’s selfish drives and desires, for intrinsic to the nature of man is the axiom that “the mind rules over the heart”—that it is within a person’s capacity to so thoroughly appreciate a truth that it is ingrained in his character and implemented in his behavior. But man’s rational faculties are powerless against the challenge of an Amalek who leaps into the boiling tub, who brazenly mocks the truth and cools man’s most inspired moments with nothing more than a dismissive “So what?”

The Bottleneck

Amalek attacked Israel “on the road, on [the] way out of Egypt,” as they were headed toward Mount Sinai to receive G‑d’s Torah and their mandate as His people. Here, too, history mirrors the inner workings of the soul: the timing of the historical Amalek’s attack describes the internal circumstances under which the pestilence of baseless doubt rears its head.

In the Passover Haggadah we say: “In every generation one must see himself as if he personally came out of Mitzrayim.” Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, means “narrow straits”; on the personal level, this refers to what chassidic teaching calls the “narrowness of the neck” which interposes between the mind and the heart.

Just as physically the head and the heart are joined by a narrow passageway, the neck, so it is in the spiritual-psychological sense. For while the mind possesses an innate superiority over the heart, it is a most difficult and challenging task for a person to exercise this superiority—to direct and mold his feelings and desires to conform with what he knows to be right. This is the “Exodus from Mitzrayim” that is incumbent on each and every generation: the individual challenge to negotiate the narrow straits of one’s internal “neck,” to overcome the material enticements, the emotional subjectivity, the ego and self-interest which undermine the mind’s authority over the heart and impede its influence on the person’s character and behavior.

As long as a person is still imprisoned in his personal mitzrayim, he faces many challenges to his integrity. As long as he has not succeeded in establishing his mind as the axis on which all else revolves, his base instincts and traits—such as greed, anger, the quest for power and instant gratification—may get the better of him. But once he achieves his personal “Exodus” from the narrow straits of his psyche, once he establishes his knowledge and understanding of the truth as the determining force in his life, the battle is all but won. He may be confronted with negative ideas and rationalizations, but free of the distortions of self-interest, the truth will triumph. He may be tempted by negative drives and desires, but if in his life the mind rules the heart, it will curb and ultimately transform them.

But there remains one enemy which threatens also the post-Exodus individual: Amalek. Amalek “knows his Master and consciously rebels against Him.” Amalek does not challenge the truth with arguments, or even with selfish motivations; he just disregards it. To the axiom, “Do truth because it is true,” Amalek says, “So what?” Armed with nothing but his chutzpah, Amalek jumps into the boiling tub, contests the incontestable. And in doing so, he cools its impact.

Beyond Reason

How is one to respond to Amalek? How is one to deal with the apathy, the cynicism, the senseless doubt within? The formula that the Torah proposes is encapsulated in a single word: Zachor—“Remember.”

In his Tanya,4 Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi discusses the faith in G‑d that is integral to the Jewish soul. Faith is not something that must be attained; it need only be revealed, for it is woven into the very fabric of the soul’s essence. Faith, continues Rabbi Schneur Zalman, transcends reason. Through faith one relates to the infinite truth of G‑d in its totality, unlike the perception achieved by reason, which is defined and limited by the finite nature of the human mind.

Thus Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains the amazing fact that, throughout Jewish history, many thousands of Jews have sacrificed their lives rather than renounce their faith and their bond with the Almighty—including many who had little conscious knowledge and appreciation of their Jewishness, and did not practice it in their daily lives. At their moment of truth, when they perceived that their very identity as Jews was at stake, their intrinsic faith—a faith that knows no bounds or equivocations—came to light, and overpowered all else.

Amalek is irrational and totally unresponsive to reason; the answer to Amalek is likewise supra-rational. The Jew’s response to Amalek is to remember: to call forth his soul’s reserves of supra-rational faith, a faith which may lie buried and forgotten under a mass of mundane involvements and entanglements. A faith which, when remembered, can meet his every moral challenge, rational or not.