Elul, Amalek and Doctor Who

Morah Yehudis Fishman
Morah Yehudis Fishman

Who has not seen or at least heard of the long-running TV series, Dr. Who, a series that has spanned most of my adult life? Why do I bring it up at this time of the year? Primarily because of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, that always comes out during the Hebrew month of Elul.

At the end of the portion we read the section about erasing the memory of Amalek (rhymes with ‘Dalek’). Amalek, the arch enemy of the Jewish people, has both an external and an internal M.O.: externally Amalek represents the ultimate in anti-Semitism, a people who though no longer identifiable as a specific nation, still sadly rears its pernicious head around the world in many guises. Internally, Amalek relates to a range of negative character traits that basically prevent a person from growing spiritually. Amalek’s destructive power lies in attempts to pull us down in many ways, such as, infusing doubt, cooling our longing for holiness, mocking everything sacred, and above all, as Rebbe Nachman puts it, to cause those whose spirits are weakened, to despair of hope.

Theologically, Amalek wants to intercept every association with G-d in our lives; in fact, one meaning of his name is to pinch off, to disconnect. There is a verse from the earlier context of Amalek that verbally expresses their blocking attempts: In Exodus, 17:16, the Torah states: (one of the few, five word phrases in Torah with only two letters each): “Ki Yad Al Keis Y-ah”= for his hand is on the throne of G-d.’ The name of G-d used in this verse bears the first two letters of the four letter Tetragrammaton, the holiest name of G-d; the last two letters, the Vav and the final Hei, are missing from this verse. Similarly the word throne omits the letter Aleph, leaving instead a two letter word, Keis that means covering. Rashi comments that neither G-d’s name nor His Throne will be complete until the name of Amalek is eradicated. If we put the three missing letters, the vav, the hei, and the aleph together, we get a word that spells Who in Hebrew!

So here is my somewhat convoluted association: First of all, who would Dr. Who be if he were in a Jewish story? Clearly not G-d! Even though he has remarkable powers and is called a ‘Time Lord’ who can travel to both the past and future, Dr. Who does not always behave with sterling character, and is subject to a range of human emotions. More likely he would represent every person. But then, how could he possess supernatural qualities? That is precisely my point: without the voice of Amalek constantly striving to keep us feeling shriveled and insignificant, and stopping us from trying if we can’t be perfect, we could all be much more capable of anything we have ever dreamed of. We would succeed in connecting the upper and lower worlds, like the letters in HaShem’s name, and we could let the ‘Aleph’ – equaling the One – shine through the covering over nature so that the Throne of Glory pierces every concealed nook and cranny of the physical world. In short, we could be the opposite of everything Amalek stands for.

How do we do make that connection and remove the obstruction? Along comes the month of Elul with an image straight from Dr. Who – and from a verse in the psalm that is recited the entire forty days from the new moon of Elul till the last day of Sukkot – Psalm 27:5

‘He covers me in His Shelter on a bad day, He hides me in the concealment of His Tent, upon a rock, He lifts me.’ Echo of Tardis? What is a structure whose opening is externally small but is spacious on the inside? How about the chamber of a shofar of Rosh Hashana, or the Holy of Holies of Yom Kippur (in which the Talmud tells us, rested the Ark of the Covenant that occupied no earthly space!), or the Sukkah of Sukkot, or the circle space of Simchat Torah – or above all, the inner core of our souls? I think you get the picture. Our personal Dr. Who can transport us especially this time of year to sync up with the big ‘Dr. Who’ that desires to bond with our world in an open and revealed way, but needs our assistance in defeating the interfering forces of Amalek.

Actually, the word Elul itself hints at this Tardis like quality. If we divide Elul in half, we get two Hebrew words: LO with a ‘lamed alef’ that means ‘no,’ and LO with a ‘lamed vav’ that means ‘to Him’. This can mean, if, like the ‘lamed alef’, we realize that our seemingly independent selves are really a contingent existence and we are not self-sufficient beings, then, like the ‘lamed vav’, we truly become part of the vast, infinite Self that has no limit. We just need to find the opening and go through the door. There is a Midrashic saying: ‘Make a small opening like that of the head of a needle and I will make an opening through which caravans can enter.’ As the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson Reb Baruch explains, a Jew merely has to begin the process and HaShem will help attain the loftiest goals.

So what is the process? What should we be doing this time of year when we are blessed to be surrounded by those protective spaces? Simple! Take our accumulated mistakes and ‘return to sender.’ The process of return – called Teshuva – is the most important artifact in the arsenal of a true ‘Time Lord.’ To be able to go back and re-edit, not just erase, but as the Talmud puts it: ‘Teshuva out of fear can transform intentional sins into unintentional sins, but teshuva out of love can change even intentional sins into positive acts!’

But we should want even more than blessings of life for ourselves; we should want the very opposite of what Amalek wants; we should yearn to convert the whole world into a throne of the Divine. The culmination of the forty days from Elul till Yom Kippur concludes with the sevenfold declaration of the following three words: ‘HaShem HU Ha’Elokim’, ‘The Eternal One, He is the Force of all existence.’ And it is the ‘HU’ that connects these two aspects of G-d, the transcendent and the immanent. Each of us is the ‘Doctor Who’ that makes the connection with the power of our souls. In the equally classic words of a routine I heard throughout my life, ‘WHO’S ON FIRST.’ Let us all strive to actualize: HASHEM HU HA’ELOKIM in this coming year of 5777!

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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