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Home » Purim, Tetzaveh

Tetzaveh / Zachor: Combating The Skeptic

Submitted by on February 25, 2009 – 2:08 amNo Comment | 1,403 views

Skepticism

A debate is currently raging in campuses across the country about binge drinking. Some believe the solution lies in stricter enforcement of existing laws against underage drinking. Others argue that enforcement will simply drive the drinkers underground. They prefer to reduce the minimum drinking age and to combat the problem through a comprehensive education program abut the dangers of binge drinking.

We have some experience with the question of prosecution versus education. Education, for example, has been highly effective in persuading students, who were previously unaware of the dangers, to abstain from habits such as drugs and sexual promiscuity.

However, these problems are never fully solved through education. There are kids who are perfectly aware of the dangers, but dismiss them with a skeptical shrug of incredulity. These children slip right through the educational cracks and drag others along with them. You can’t help them by teaching them about the damaging effects of their bad habits; they already know the effects. But they insulate their emotions from such knowledge through a healthy dose of skepticism.

 The skeptic can destroy, in an instant, understandings and commitments that take years to establish. What makes it difficult to contend with is that it is impervious to argument or debate. Skeptics don’t counter your argument with reason; they dismantle it by making light of it.

Take for example the recent add campaign splashed across eight-hundred city busses in London, England that proclaimed, “G-d probably does not exist so quit worrying and enjoy life.” This is not a philosophical defense of atheism nor is it a reasoned attack on religion, but it is far more effective than either of those could ever be. It is a sound-bite that appeals to our collective quest for contentment promising pleasure and contentment to those who reject G-d. Philosophical theories and religious treatises cannot counter this appealing sound bite. It is the attack of the skeptic and it is almost impervious to response.

Amalek

This is the spirit of the Biblical Amalek. Our ancestors were enslaved by a Pharaoh who proclaimed ignorance on the Jewish G-d. G-d made Himself known to Pharaoh through ten awesome plagues and Pharaoh responded by liberating the Jews. The nations were in awe of the Jewish G-d. No amount of cajoling or debating could persuade them to attack G-d’s people. Amalek stepped into the breach and cooled their ardor. He brazenly attacked the Jews and was roundly defeated, but the deterrent power of the Jewish G-d was shattered. Amalek did not present the nations with philosophical arguments. He presented them with skepticism. He made light of their concerns and dismissed the Jewish G-d with a careless shrug of his shoulders. (1)

Amalek is the quintessential skeptic. In fact skepticism is embedded in his very name. The word Amal, which is ordinarily translated as labor or suffering can also mean distress and despair. The skeptic, more than any other challenger, wears out the believer and causes him to despair.

The descendants of the Amalekites have since dispersed among the peoples of the world, but the spirit of skepticism is alive and well. It gnaws away at every noble intention and is the most difficult trait to overcome. The Torah proclaims, “First among nations is Amalek and his end will be eternal destruction.” (2) The mystics view this verse as a treatise on skepticism;combating the skeptic - innestream it is the first and the root of all evil and it is destroyed only at the very end i.e. the inner struggle against skepticism can be lifelong.

Our Response

Skepticism is only possible where the truth is not obvious. One can be skeptical of the existence of G-d because in His first act of creation G-d concealed Himself from His own creation. Elokim, the Divine name of stricture and justice, alludes to G-d’s infinite ability to conceal. In other words, one can be skeptical about Elokim a G-d that is concealed, but one cannot be skeptical about a revealed G-d because even skepticism cannot belie the obvious.

The patriarch Jacob “struggled against Elokim… and triumphed.” (3) The mystics saw Jacob’s struggle as a quest to confirm first to himself and then to others the fact of G-d’s existence. When he succeeded in demonstrating the existence of G-d he effectively overcame Elokim, G-d’s concealment of Himself. At that point he was granted the name Israel, which tells us that Israel refers to our ability to overcome doubt. It alludes to the purity of our convictions through which we overcome skepticism, both inner and outer, about the existence of G-d.

The Torah testifies that, “There is no Amal among Israel;” Jacob might feel the despair of Amal, but Israel does not. (4) The skeptic makes the believer despair and causes him distress because the believer cannot counter skepticism. His arguments are dismissed, his faith is scoffed at and his noble aspirations are made to seem foolish. But that is only true of the believer who responds to skepticism as Jacob would. The Torah teaches us to respond as Israel would.

To overcome skepticism born of Elokim we must allow our inner Israel, our soul that knows with certainty of G-d’s existence, to respond. Its conviction is so rooted and entrenched that no amount of skepticism can dilute it. Amal, despair, has no place among Israel. When faced with a bout of skepticism Israel counters not with words, but with conviction. We counter the certainty of the skeptic with the certainty of our faith and allow our convictions to ring with clarity. This is the way to avoid the despair brought on by the skeptic. This is the way to avoid Amal.

We are enjoined to eradicate every last trace of Amalek. Though we cannot identify the descendants of Amalek this commandment is relevant to us today in our struggle against our inner Amalek; the Amal that has no place among the ranks of Israel. We take comfort in the knowledge that our triumph against Amalek will usher in the Messianic era; an era of such joy that even the holiday of Purim will fail by comparison. (5)

Footnotes

  1. See Midrash Tanchuma and Yalkut Shimoni on Deuteronomy 25: 18.
  2. Numbers 24: 20.
  3. Genesis 25: 29.
  4. Numbers 23:21.
  5. This essay is based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Reshima # 153.
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