Friday, March 2, 2007

Late Night with Amalek

This week, in addition to parshat Tetzaveh we also read the “parsha” of Amalek. It may just be a few verses, but this additional reading is actually the most important Torah reading of the year. Unlike the weekly reading of the parsha, reminding ourselves what Amalek did is a fulfillment of a Biblical mitzvah.

Remember what Amalek did to you on the road when you left Egypt. They encountered you on the road and cut down those lagging to your rear; you were tired and exhausted. They did not fear G-d.

Shemot 25:17-18

Remembering the unprovoked violence of the Amalekite tribe is not the only mitzvah here. There is another mitzvah, a mitzvah for the future. Here is the final verse:

When G-d gives you peace from all the enemies around you in the land that G-d your Lord is giving you to occupy as a heritage, you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. You must not forget.

This second mitzvah to destroy Amalek is, unfortunately, non-operational. Ever since the Assyrian Empire took up the policy of deporting populations, societies have intermarried and it is impossible to identify a purebred Amalekite. However, the Talmud seems to say that it is still possible to perform this mitzvah. Rav rules that the parsha of Amalek must be read on the Shabbat before Purim so that we do the remembering before we do the obliterating (Talmud, Megillah 30a). In other words, we first remember what Amalek did on Shabbat Zachor and then we destroy Amalek on Purim. The Halacha is in agreement with Rav.

Destroy Amalek on Purim? How do we do that? Presumably, the Talmud is not simply referring to the custom to make noise when Haman’s name is mentioned!

In order to understand the Talmud’s meaning, we need to understand that “Amalek” is more than just another anti-Semitic tribe. Amalek is the root of evil in the universe. The mitzvot to remember and ultimately destroy Amalek are mitzvot to remember that evil exists and to battle it. This is the national Jewish mission of “Tikkun Olam,” fixing the world. But fixing the world starts at home.

Victory against the Amalek “out there” is not currently possible. We will only raise the “Mission Accomplished” banner when Mashiach arrives. But every person has a little “Amalek” within and that is what we must destroy on Purim. How does Purim function to destroy the element of evil in man? To answer that question, we must first get a sharper definition of the evil that is Amalek.

What did Amalek do? They attacked the Jews after the Exodus. Although the Amalekites had no reason to fear the Jews and the attack was certainly unprovoked, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a random act of violence. Amalek had a motive. They wished to shatter the aura of the brand new Chosen Nation.

Nothing is sacred in the world of Amalek. An Amalekite is a rationalist and an atheist, a cynical, late night stand-up comic. He is never impressed and he is never awed. On the contrary, Amalek sees it as their job to tear down anything and anyone that others might respect. After the Exodus, with its manifest miracles and the destruction of the Egyptian Empire, the world trembled. G-d and the Jews were revered and untouchable. So Amalek set out to prove they were not impressed. They did not fear G-d – and nobody else had to either.
The nations were afraid to fight you [until] this one started up and paved the way for others. The analogy is to a boiling pool [that is too hot] for anyone to enter. Some moron shows up and cannonballs into it. Even though he gets burned, he cools it off for everyone else.
Rashi ad loc.
This is the evil of Amalek – G-d and the Jews were hot and Amalek cooled them off. How does Amalek do it? He’s got an explanation for everything. Volcanic activity turned the Nile red, an eclipse turned the sky dark and low tide split the sea. There’s nothing to be afraid of, says Amalek. There is no G-d.

What do we do on Purim? We read Megillat Esther. There are no miracles in this story. G-d’s name isn’t even mentioned once. But we read the Megillah and we recognize the Hand of G-d pulling all the strings. Amalek is the voice that denies G-d when He is manifest; Purim is the voice that recognizes G-d when He is invisible. It is as Rav said: On Purim we destroy Amalek.


  1. Excellent description of who Amalek truly is! Unfortunately, in the moral relativism which permeates our societies today, fighting Amalek is a constant battle.

    I have a difficult theological question regarding the commandment to Shaul to destroy all the Amalekites, including the infants (I Sam 15:3). This would imply that perhaps there is something inherently, "genetically" evil within Amalek.

    But Rambam tells us in Hilchot Teshuvah that, "Do not even consider...that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, decrees upon each person at the time of birth whether he will be good or bad. This is not so - every person has the potential to be as righteous as Moses our Teacher, or as wicked as Jeroboam."

    How do we reconcile I Sam 15 with Rambam? Any insights into this problem would be much appreciated, as this dilemma is used by modern day Amalekites to cast their cynical aspersions on Jewish morality.

    Thank you, and a joyous Purim to all!!

  2. Barry-

    Your question is not an easy one. We might have to say that Amalek is the exception to the rule, but there is another possibility:
    While as a nation Amalek is inherently evil and irredeemably so, the individual Amalekite might still hold on to free will.