Don’t Be Skeptical About Skepticism1
They said to Moshe: “Are there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die
in the wilderness? What have you done to us to take us out of Egypt?”
Their cynicism is remarkable! Moments from what in their minds is certain
death, they still have an inclination towards black humor.
Aside from the cynicism, their lack of faith bothers some people. But is
this fair? How else could they have reacted? There was no visible escape
route, other than the extraordinarily miraculous. How could they calmly
assume that Hashem would engineer salvation for them in the way He
subsequently did, contrary to all natural expectation? What happened
afterwards had no precedent. It surpassed in its scope, according to Chazal,
even the mind-bending plagues that they had recently witnessed. Could they
have been expected to intuit the outcome, and not voice their natural fear
If you are still skeptical, and see room for a reaction of complete faith in
Hashem and His servant Moshe (a faith that the Torah tells us did set in as
a result of the splitting of the Sea, but not before), know this: their
skepticism is of inestimable value in demonstrating the truth of Moshe’s
mission. We would be a poorer people without it.
Perhaps the most important theme of R. Yehudah ha-Levi ‘s Kuzari is that
Jews believe first and foremost in the G-d of history. We are loyal to Him
not because we have no other way of understanding how the universe began, or
how life was generated, or where universal concepts of morality come
from. We believe, says R. Yehudah ha-Levi, because we were witnesses to
history. We experienced ourselves a relationship with Hashem, and saw the
relationship with Him change according to the way we met His expectations.
Today, we are at the receiving end of a tradition that began with a large
group of people who heard the voice of G-d at Sinai, and unmistakably
experienced His Presence. This stands in sharp contrast to those whose faith
is built upon the experience of a single purported visionary picked by G-d
to convert his generation and those that followed. Belief in the veracity of
his message is completely a question of personal preference, of how much the
message resonates within the individual.
The strength of this tradition depends in large part on how we view that
generation. If they were eager consumers of snake-oil, or if their loyalty
to a charismatic leader could be achieved easily, their message to us would
leave room for doubt.
At times of stress, when their inner natures were most expressive, they
showed just the opposite. They were not easy marks or pushovers. A
demonstration by Moshe one day was doubted the next. This was a difficult
group to convince!
But convinced they were. By the end of the forty years of Moshe’s
leadership, they were so firmly committed to Moshe’s message that they
weathered persecution and privation for the millennia to come, rather than
turn their back on what they knew was true. The national leopard of the
Jewish people had not changed its skeptical spots. Insofar as their belief
in Torah, however, the skeptics had come around, and become fierce believers.
Perhaps, you might object, the forty years in the wilderness broke their
spirit, weeded out the creative thinkers who died along the way, and left
only meek sheep to continue Jewish history. Look again at their biting
reference to a shortage of graves in Egypt. Here they cross the line between
skepticism and cynicism. Look carefully at that cynicism, and see if you do
not recognize a national feature of our people, very much with us to this
very day. No sheep, then or now.
Even some of our disagreeableness has an important function!
Forgetting By Remembering
Hashem said to Moshe: “Write this as a remembrance in a book and repeat
it in the ears of Yehoshua – I will utterly blot out the remembrance of
Amalek from under the Heavens.
We are to remember, because Hashem will erase that remembrance? Does this
follow, or make any sense? Which is it to be? Are we to remember the
cunning and the evil of Amalek, or work towards the goal of wiping away any
trace of his existence?
History does not need reconstruction or revisionism. Amalek’s record need
not be stricken from the books. What happened, happened, and people can
study it till the end of time.
Awareness of Amalek’s misdeeds is not itself a barrier to the moral progress
of human civilization. Glorifying the agenda, the life-style of Amalek is
indeed a barrier. The “remembrance” of Amalek in this verse means the honor
human societies accord to those who rule by power and the sword. When we
cover their memory with laurels, we turn the successful conquerors of
history into objects of hero-worship and emulation. It is a small step
indeed from venerating conquest to the cynical and determined ideology that
demands that the strong obliterate the weak, simply because the world
belongs to the strong.
There is only one antidote to this. It is not the celebration of pacifism or
quietism per se; abhorrence of violence might be good for much of mankind,
but it will not stop those who seek the glory of conquest and know no moral
barriers. Amalek will cease to exist when the glory attached to brute power
is fully replaced by the glory of moral achievement. When all men, great and
small, are judged by their neighbors according to how morally they act,
there will be no room left for Amalek. The glory that used to follow in the
wake of the conquest by force will vanish.
This will happen one day. We will know that we have arrived when we sense
that the world is united in its commitment to a common platform of
Divinely-ordained morality. This is, in short, the mission of Israel. It is
the goal for mankind that Hashem has programmed for us; it is the way in
which He will blot out the remembrance of Amalek forever.
Until that day arrives, we increase our resolve to get there by remembering
what Amalek did, how deeply seated the power of evil can be. We remember
what we need to do to overcome it.
 Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Shemos 14:11
 These approaches are sometimes referred to as “G-d of the gaps”
arguments, where G-d’s existence is necessitated by gaps in our ability to
understand certain things. A problem with these arguments –unlike that of
the Kuzari – is that the gaps sometimes shrink for some people, when new
thinking is advanced – correct or even incorrect! – that claims to explain
what previously was incomprehensible.