Ki Teizei: Human Nature is Not a Croc

In Kenya last month, I watched several hundred migrating wildebeest and zebra cross a river. The animals gathered on the bank and milled around nervously until one literally “took the plunge.” The others followed in a mad dash for the rocky slope on the other side. 

The reason for their anxiety soon became apparent.   Within a few minutes, several large crocodiles appeared. 

What happened next surprised me.  Rather than moving in to attack the highly vulnerable herd, the crocodiles remained a short distance off, observing.  It was puzzling.  Were they going to just let all this food go by?  Amazingly, one zebra even waded over to and stared down a large crocodile, as if daring it to attack.  Whether it was protecting the others, showing its bravado, or just taunting a hated enemy, I don’t know.  But the croc didn’t move and the zebra turned and completed its crossing. 

It wasn’t until nearly all the animals had frantically scampered to safety that I better understood what was happening.  The crocs were just waiting until the animals that could defend themselves had left.  It was the weak and vulnerable stragglers that the crocs were after.  I’ll leave the rest to your imagination, and if you want to see the 7-minute video, email me and I’ll send it to you.     

I also saw other preditors, singly and in packs, trailing migrating herds.  It was clear that they were using the same strategy.  In other words, this is entirely natural behavior for animals.

But what about for humans, even in time of war? 

This scenario plays out at the end of this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Ki Teizei.  The Israelites are famished and weary.  The nomadic tribe of Amalek attacks the stragglers.  The Torah’s author is so incensed at this behavior that we are commanded to obliterate the memory of Amalek.

What’s strange about this is that, of course, many other enemies attacked the Israelites, and yet we were not commanded to obliterate their memories – not even the Egyptians who enslaved and then pursued the Israelites.  Why this exceptional animosity to Amalek? 

According to Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, the answer lies in the Torah’s statement that Amalek “did not fear G-d.”  Had he frontally attacked all of the Israelites, as did the other enemies, this would have been defying both G-d and their intended human victims.  But Amalek evidently did fear the Israelites; by attacking only their weak and vulnerable – those for whom G-d has special solicitude -- Amalek showed special contempt for G-d.  

We can learn two lessons from this.  First, that we should never justify immoral conduct by claiming “it’s human nature.”  It may indeed be human nature, but G-d requires that we strive to overcome that nature.  In fact, we might even say that the distinguishing characteristic of “human nature” is our paradoxical ability to defy nature.  “Evil crouches at the door, toward you is its lust, but you can rule over it” G-d tells Cain in Genesis. 

The second lesson is that anyone who fails to reach out to help the weak and the vulnerable, or who, G-d forbid, takes advantage of them or preys on them, like Amalek, shows a special contempt for G-d. 

We are not prey animals.  We are creatures created in the image of the Divine, who fulfill our true nature only when we don’t do what comes naturally.   When we distinguish holy conduct from “natural” conduct, and are holy – because G-d is holy. 

Shabbat shalom. 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3