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A Conversation with Yael Eckstein on Winning the Battle Against Anti-Semitism

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yael eckstein

Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, currently oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship).

Prior to her present duties with IFCJ, Yael served as Global Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Director of Program Development and Ministry Outreach. Based in Israel with her husband and their four children, Yael is a published writer and a respected social services professional.

Yael Eckstein has contributed to The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and other publications, and is the author of three books: Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children, Holy Land Reflections: A Collection of Inspirational Insights from Israel, and Spiritual Cooking with Yael. In addition, her insights into life in Israel, the Jewish faith, and Jewish-Christian relations can be heard on The Fellowship’s radio program, Holy Land Moments, which airs five times per week on over 1,500 radio stations around the world.

Yael Eckstein has partnered with other global organizations, appeared on national television, and visited with the U.S. and world leaders on issues of shared concern. She has been a featured guest on CBN’s The 700 Club with Gordon Robertson, and she served on a Religious Liberty Panel on Capitol Hill in May 2015 in Washington, D.C., discussing religious persecution in the Middle East. Her influence as one of the young leaders in Israel has been recognized with her inclusion in The Jerusalem Post’s 50 Most Influential Jews of 2020 and The Algemeiner’s Jewish 100 of 2019, and she was featured as the cover story of Nashim (Women) magazine in May 2015.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and well-educated at both American and Israeli institutions – including biblical studies at Torat Chesed Seminary in Israel, Jewish and sociology studies at Queens College in New York, and additional study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – Yael Eckstein has also been a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States.

Tell us about the battle between Israel and Amalek.

In Exodus chapters 13 through 17, we read the story of Pharaoh freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. But soon after, Pharaoh regretted his decision and sent his army after them.

The Israelites were stuck between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea, and then God performed a miracle. He split the sea so that the Israelites could pass through while the Egyptians were drowned in the waves.

The people of Israel were saved from Egypt, but now began another stage in their journey and faced new challenges. In the desert they experienced thirst and hunger, and they complained to Moses, but God took care of their needs. He sweetened the bitter waters and had Moses bring water from a rock. He caused manna to rain down from heaven and sent quail into their camps. And at the end of the story, the Israelites experienced yet another challenge. They were attacked by the nation of Amalek. The verses that I’ll explore today describe the battle with Amalek. They are Exodus chapter 1710-13.

Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning. But whenever he lowered his hands, Amalek had an advantage. Aaron and Hur propped up Moses’ hands whenever he was tired so that he was able to keep his hands up all day long until the battle was won – one on one side, the other on the other side, so that Moses’ hands remained steady until sunset. As Moses did this, Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

How did the location of Moses’ hands determine the outcome of this battle?

The rabbis explained that Moses’ hands didn’t direct the battle, the people’s hearts did. And their hearts were directed by Moses’ hands. When Moses’ hands were up, the Israelites looked up literally and figuratively. They looked up towards the heavens and turned to God as their hope and savior. But when Moses’ hands were down, the people’s faith fell. And without faith, no amount of arrows in the world could defeat the enemy. God wanted the Israelites – and all of us – to learn that faith is an unseen force that has a powerful effect on how events unfold in our lives.

Why is the battle with the Amalekites so significant for Jews?

The Amalekites were the descendants of Esau’s grandson, whose name was Amalek. They lived south of the land of Canaan and attacked the Israelites for no reason, other than their hatred for Israel and the God of Israel. According to Jewish tradition, the nation of Amalek was the biblical paradigm of evil in this world. They stood for the idea of a godless world, a world where things happen at random, with no concept of morality or justice. The Jewish sages explained that the numerical value of the word Amalek is the same as the Hebrew word for doubt.

This is because Amalek’s goal was, and still is today, to sow seeds of doubt, causing people to doubt God’s existence, His authority, and His involvement in our lives. Now we can understand why the battle against Amalek had to be fought with faith. It could only be won with faith. The antidote to the evil poison that Amalek injects into the world is the faith demonstrated by the nation of Israel. But even though the Israelites won that first battle against Amalek, the war was not over. It continues to this very day. And whether we know it or not, we are all part of it. The Bible tells us that God will be at war with Amalek until the end of time. This is how it’s written in Exodus: “Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the LORD, the LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation” (17:16).

So Jews are still fighting the battle with Amalek?

When you see Exodus 17:16 in the original Hebrew, the word kisseh, which means throne, has a missing letter. The rabbis explained that this teaches us that as long as the nation of Amalek exists, God’s throne is not complete. His kingdom is not fully established until Amalek is completely defeated. In Deuteronomy 25:17, we are commanded to blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. We are called to destroy Amalek so that not even a memory of the nation remains. But what does that mean for us today? Does the nation of Amalek still exist? And if it does, are we required to take up arms to destroy them? According to Jewish tradition, in our times, Amalek is a notion, not a nation. The beliefs and values that Amalek stood for are what we are obligated to uproot from the world. Amalek presents itself in many different ways in our world today. It is the root of anti-Semitism, the irrational hatred of the Jewish people that has led to so much bloodshed over the centuries.

How can we defeat Amalek?

One way that we are called to fight Amalek today is by fighting against anti-Semitism and all irrational hate. Amalek is also any person or group of people who attack God and try to remove Him from the world, and people who deny His existence or challenge His authority. So another way to fight Amalek is by standing up for biblical values for what is true and moral and just. But the greatest threat that Amalek poses in our times doesn’t come in the form of an external enemy. It is an enemy that we face within. The war against Amalek is fought in the deepest recesses of our hearts and souls. In Deuteronomy 25:18, the language that the Bible uses to describe the Amalek attack is “they met you on your journey,” but in the original Hebrew, these words can also be translated as “they cooled you on your journey.”

Here’s how the rabbis explain the significance of these words. When the Israelites came out of Egypt, after experiencing the 10 plagues and the splitting of the sea, they were on fire with passion for God. Their hearts were burning with love and a connection for Him, but Amalek came along and cooled them on their journey. Amalek cooled off that fiery faith. Amalek attacked the Israelites as if to say, “Where is your God now?” Amalek’s mission, then and now, from outside and from within, is to drive a wedge between us and God and to cool off our relationship with him. Amalek tries to sow seeds of doubt to make us question if God is with us, if He can help us, and if He really cares about us. Amalek is that voice that creeps into our heads and asks, “Do you really believe that God is in control?” It’s the voice that makes us fear the future, asking, “Can you really be sure that God will provide?”

It’s the voice that tries to convince you that doing the wrong thing just this once is okay, because does God really care? And what Amalek really thrives on is when we face challenges, when there is a tragedy and it doesn’t make sense to us. In Deuteronomy 25:18, the Bible tells us that Amalek attacked “When you were weary and worn out.” That’s when Amalek strikes – exactly when we are battered and hurting. That’s when Amalek tries to challenge our faith – when we’re at our weakest point – by saying, “There is no God, how could a good God let bad things happen?”

How else does Amalek attack us?

Like the war fought in Moses’ time, we fight the war against Amalek with faith. Amalek attacks by telling us that God is nowhere. And we defeat Amalek by declaring that God is everywhere, even if we can’t see Him. Rabbi Hanina bar Hama, a Talmudic Sage in the third century, used to say, “No person hurts his little finger without having been ordered from above.” He taught that God’s providence extends to every detail of man’s life on earth and nothing happens without God’s knowledge.

The more we integrate this message into our everyday lives, the more we will weaken the remnant of Amalek. But Amalek also attacks us from the inside in a more sinister, less obvious way. One way that Amalek affects us is by making us doubt God, but another way that Amalek affects us is by causing us to doubt ourselves.

When we know that God is with us – helping us, protecting us, and cheering us on – we have the confidence to succeed. But as soon as we start to doubt His presence in our life, it directly affects our confidence and our ability to achieve our goals.

Sometimes God’s presence in our lives is more obvious. And other times He is more hidden. He might let go of the bicycle seat so that we can ride on our own, but God only lets go when He knows that we are ready, and He never stops watching over us. Amalek wants us to believe that God has abandoned us. And if we believe that, if we doubt that God is with us, we will doubt ourselves and we might fail when we could have succeeded.

Amalek is the voice in our heads telling us that we aren’t good enough and that we can’t overcome our challenges. Amalek whispers in our ears that our actions won’t make a difference in the world and that we aren’t capable of making good decisions.

How can we support one another in this never-ending fight?

Our task is to see God, even when He is hidden, to have faith that He is with us and by extension, to have faith in ourselves. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and God will never ask us to do anything that we aren’t capable of. When we know that the Master of the world is on our side, we don’t doubt our ability to do anything. So far, we’ve said that we fight Amalek in our times by fighting anti-Semitism, by standing up for biblical values, by holding onto faith, and by overcoming self-doubt. But there is another important role each of us can play in defeating Amalek in our times.

In the biblical battle against Amalek, we saw how the success of the war depended on Moses’ hands being raised. When they were raised, the people of Israel had faith and the war was in their favor. And we also learned that when Moses’ hands were tired and the faith of the Israelites began to fall, Aaron and Hur supported Moses’s hands. Without their support, the war could not have been won.

Aside from fighting our own battles against Amalek, we need to support each other. We need to support others in their battles, too. We need to help others when their strength begins to fall or when their faith begins to fall. I see this support and its effects all the time in the support that Christians give to Israel. The Jewish people have come back to the land of Israel and we have watched prophecy unfold before our eyes. But our enemies attack us with words, with missiles, and with other forms of terrorism. The enemy wants the Jews to lose faith and to give up. The enemy wants us to doubt God’s presence and His love. The enemy wants us to feel like God won’t protect us. The nation of Israel is engaged in a physical and spiritual battle every single day. Every moment we need to choose between trusting in God or giving up.

This is why the contribution of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, on behalf of Christians around the world, is so essential. Every time we build a bomb shelter, we give the people of Israel not just protection from missiles, but also a boost of morale, reminding them that there is hope and that the words of the Bible are true. Every time Israelis enter a bomb shelter and see the words “Donated with love by Christians around the world,” we are holding up the arms of Israel, just as Aaron and Hur held up the arms of Moses in that first battle against Amalek. When Christians show their love and support for Israel, they are here fighting with us, too.

In Deuteronomy 25:19 we read, “You shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.” This week, consider how you might erase everything Amalek stands for. How can you encourage others and strengthen their faith? How might you strengthen your own faith, especially when you are weary and worn out? Is there a Bible verse that you can turn to? A Bible story that inspires you? A person that you can turn to? And how might you gain confidence by recognizing God’s presence in your life? What would you do if you truly believed that God is with you? The battle of faith that Moses began thousands of years ago continues with each one of us.

 

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