The Vort: The Power of Doubt – Parashat Beshallach

Every day we face difficult interpersonal situations, whether at the office, with our family, or in our communities. How do we deal? We’ve been trained to use our critical faculties and analyze the situation, and pick it apart. Deconstruct. But at what point does that strength become a weakness?
In this week’s parsha, the Israelites face challenges in their journey through the desert. They culminate with the attack by the notorious nation of Amalek. In Deuteronomy 25:17, Amalek‘s attack is described as follows:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of chassidut, explains that Amalek, our great nemesis, is the incarnation of doubt. The gematria, numerical value, of the word עֲמָלֵק (Amalek) is 240, the same as the word for ספק (safek), doubt. Doubt attacks us when we are faint and weary. It cuts us where we are weakest. This interpretation, Amalek‘s connection to doubt, also makes sense if we look at the story in context. Right before Amalek‘s attack, the Israelites made sarcastic, bitter jokes about their plight and picked unnecessary fights with their Moshe and Aharon. They doubted.
In our culture, doubt and skepticism are ways of showing strength. To be taken for a ride is a sign of weakness. Expressing cynicism and sarcasm is a way of attaining social power. It sometimes works, too. But at what price? The Jews got the food and water they were looking for, but their cynical harping hurt their relationships with Moses, Aaron, and God. It also hurt their capacity to believe in themselves.
The ability to dissect a problem or a person into a million little pieces might leave me feeling confident about how smart I am. My sarcasm might make someone laugh. But where does it leave me? When I’m at my weakest, will the bitterness and doubt I’ve sent out into the world come to my aid? Will all the thoughts I’ve had that cut those around me down bring them closer when I need them most? Will I be able to believe in others? Will I be able to believe in myself?
I’m not saying forget about critical thought or blindly follow any leaders. What I think works, and what I try to do when I have the presence of mind, is to examine the source of my skepticism and see it’s root. Am I pointing this flaw out to really help someone, or am I just doing it to raise myself up? Do I really want a situation to change or would I actually be more satisfied complaining about it? These are tough questions to ask, but the results of living a life of skepticism and doubt, of not being able to trust and to follow, or often much worse. The doubt we think makes us strong can make us the most vulnerable. It is our Amalek.

2 thoughts on “The Vort: The Power of Doubt – Parashat Beshallach

  1. Excellent Vort! you had me at baal shem tov… but seriously, sarcasm is way more contagious than a yawn or a cold. in my eyes, it is a serious disease of the mind.

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