He called the place Masah u-Meriva because of the contention of the Bnei
Yisrael, and because of their test of Hashem, saying, “Is Hashem among us or
not?” Amalek came and battled Yisrael in Rephidim.
So much of our early history becomes clear when we understand the
implications of these pesukim!
Contention and test are two strong words. Surely they were disappointed, and
complained – perhaps unduly. But contention? From the fact that the test in
the next phrase was of Hashem, we understand that the contention was with
someone else. That someone had to be Moshe. About what were they contending?
In what way were they testing G-d?
The test had nothing to do with fundamental emunah. They did not have to be
convinced of Hashem’s existence – not after witnessing the plagues, the
crossing of the Sea, the mon. They were not challenging Him, but something
about Him. At the same time, their cries were not those of a people ready to
expire from thirst that brought them to the brink of death. They had water,
albeit not enough to prevent them from worrying about the future. They
questioned whether Hashem was among them, i.e. whether their needs occupied
a position, as it were, close to Him.
At once, we understand what this was all about. They had no trouble
accepting the reality of Hashem’s existence. This was not so regarding
everything else that He wanted of them. He was asking them to believe in
ideas about Nature, G-d and Man that were completely foreign to the world
they lived in. The gods that their former neighbors served were nothing
like Hashem. To them, the laws of Nature stood above everything – including
the gods! Poor Man found himself submissive to the absolute and immutable
laws of an uncomprehending Nature, and to the fickle self-centeredness of
gods who carried on like juveniles out of control. This left very little
room for the dignity of Man.
Bnei Yisrael were now asked to set these notions – so obvious to everyone
around them – aside. They were instructed about a different G-d, One Who had
no restraints or limits, Who did not have to bow to Nature because He had
created it, and employed it or ignored it at will. Most importantly, they
were taught that His freedom was engineered into their being. They, too,
enjoyed freedom of choice.
“Instructed” is the key word here. These were not ideas that people could be
expected to grasp the first time they heard them. Comprehension would come
slowly and gradually, as the result of some dramatic experiences that Hashem
placed in their path. This is why so much happens to them on the way between
the Exodus and matan Torah. Each experience – Marah, the selav, the mon,
their receiving the mitzvah of Shabbos, the drawing of water from a rock –
contributed to a growing comprehension that as a Torah community, they would
not be bound by the laws of Nature. Their needs – special and even ordinary
- when congruent with their G-d-given mission, would transcend Nature.
Thus, along the route to Sinai, they deepened their appreciation of Who
Hashem is, and how becoming His people would lift them above the limitations
of other nations. They had no understanding, however, about how becoming the
Am Hashem would affect their standing among the other nations of the world.
This they learned through the attack at Refidim.
The future violence and oppression to be visited upon the Jewish people was
adumbrated in the unprovoked attack on Yaakov by the Spirit of Esav. Just a
few generations later, one of Esav’s descendants would viciously attack the
descendants of Yaakov on their trek though the wilderness. While all other
nations took heed of the Presence of G-d that accompanied them and kept
their distance, Amalek knew no fear of Hashem.
Since that time, we have lived in continuous tension with Amalek. We reject
and despise Amalek not because he stands for ruthless violence and force.
Others have lived by the sword as well, but we do not treat them as Amalek.
Paroh ruled by crushing any resistance to his rule, but the power of despots
can be used – and has been used – in the service of freedom under the right
circumstances. Amalek, however, uses strength differently.
Interestingly, Amalek is not threatened by others who wield power. He can
respect those who share his principle of might is right. They live in mutual
recognition of each other’s strength, even as they meet on the battlefield.
Amalek reserves his greatest fear and contempt for those who reject his
ethos. He cannot abide those who lay claim to spiritual power, who see the
sword as expendable and eventually irrelevant, as mankind will repudiate
force in favor of peace. People who believe in such a dream, who build their
lives around it and attempt to share it with the rest of humanity – those
are the people whom Amalek regards as mortal enemies.
Such people deny validity to Amalek and his principles, and therefore must
be snuffed out. In the unexpcted and senseless attack by Amalek. The Bnei
Yisrael instantly understood much of the Jewish future.