Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 24 February 2018 / 9 Adar II 5778

Purim, Defeating Amalek

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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One major theme in the story of Purim is the victory over Haman, who was from the seed of Amalek. In fact, this is the reason why we read parshat Zachor on the Shabbat before Purim, which describes Amalek’s defeat. Therefore, to understand the significance and depth behind Purim we must study the essence of Amalek.

Chazal tell us that everything that happens in this world has a spiritual cause. This is why the Jewish approach is always to attribute spiritual reasons to physical struggles with our enemies. This approach defines enemies as only an outer manifestation of an inner deficiency in the Jewish People. Therefore, since G-d communicates with the world through dealing with it measure-for-measure, by studying an enemy’s essence we can gain an insight into the deficiency within that caused our assault (Michtav M’Eliyahu II p. 51; see Ramban on Ber. 15:14 for why the nations will be punished for their attacks even though they were Divine decrees). Let’s analyze the spiritual cause of Amalek’s attack on the Jewish nation.

The very first time Amalek is mentioned in the Torah is after the Jewish People crossed the Yam Suf, which was directly after the many miracles G-d had performed for them. From each of the ten plagues to the sea splitting, G-d revealed Himself to the world in nearly every way possible. However, Amalek refused to acknowledge G-d because they attributed even open miracles to mere chance and coincidence. So, despite these unbelievable events, Amalek attacked the Jewish People.

What was the spiritual measure-for-measure cause of Amalek’s attack? The Torah records Amalek’s attack immediately following the Jewish People’s complaint to Moshe for water. They asked, “Is G-d in our midst or not?” which demonstrated doubt in G-d. G-d thus allowed Amalek, the nation of doubt, to attack them (see Rashi on Shemot 17:8).

A similar chain of events took place in the Purim story. The commentaries tell us that Haman, from the seed of Amalek, personified their trademark and completely ignored all the obvious signs of G-d’s worldly involvement. The Megillah tells us that, through a series of very unlikely events, the very night that Haman decided to finalize Mordechai’s death became the very night that Haman himself advised Achashverosh to magnificently honor him. How was this so? The Megillah records that on the night Achashverosh could not fall asleep, he called in his scribes to read from his Sefer HaZichronot. The book opened to Mordechai’s unrewarded good deed, which prompted Achashverosh to ask if there was anyone in the courtyard he could speak to about rewarding Mordechai. His courtier happened to spot Haman, who was ironically walking toward Achashverosh to discuss his plan to hang Mordechai. Achashverosh asked Haman for advice on rewarding someone whom the king wants to honor, and Haman, who was certain that Achashverosh was thinking about him, advised to have the man ride around as the king throughout the town. The Vilna Gaon explains that after all these strange events the Megillah says that Haman reported to his wife, Zeresh, and his loved ones, everything that chanced upon him.Haman still saw everything as mere chance (Gra on Esther 7:13).

What was the spiritual measure-for-measure cause of Haman’s death decree in the Purim story? The Gemara says that one reason why G-d decreed the Jewish People’s destruction was because they took pleasure in Achashverosh’s feast (Megillah 12a). Even though Mordechai, the Torah leader of the time, forbade them from attending, they felt that it was politically important. In other words, they removed G-d from the picture and based their decision on political considerations. This is why G-d orchestrated for Haman, the heir of Amalek, to gain power and decree against them. The moment the Jewish People stopped recognizing G-d’s control, Haman, the epitome of disbelief in G-d, was able to seize control.

Defeating Amalek

The pasuk describing the war with Amalek says:

And it was that when Moshe would raise his hand that Israel was stronger, and when he would put his hand down that Amalek was stronger. (Shemot 17:11)

The Mishnah says: Was it Moshe’s hands that won or lost the war? Rather, the verse is coming to teach you that when the Jewish People looked up to Heaven and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would win, and when not, they would fall. (Rosh Hashana 29a)

Amalek was able to attack the Jewish People after they demonstrated disbelief. Similarly, after putting all their emunah in G-d, the Jewish People were able to rectify their mistake, and defeat Amalek. This is precisely how the Jewish People merited overcoming Amalek in the Purim story. Esther understood that the only way to save the Jewish People would be through undoing their offense of removing G-d from the picture when they attended Achashverosh’s feast. Therefore, the Gemara says that Esther purposely invited Haman to her feast, giving the impression that she was on Haman’s side. One of her intentions, says the Gemara, was to cause the Jewish nation to lose hope in their “political contact” in the palace, and turn directly to G-d to save them (Megillah 15b). The Jewish People responded correctly, and instead of focusing on political tactics they turned to G-d and did teshuva. Through undoing the mistake of trusting in politics instead of G-d, the Jewish People merited salvation from Haman’s decree.

Even though Amalek as a nation is no longer around, and individuals who are from the seed of Amalek are unrecognizable (see Yoma 54a), nevertheless their ideology of denying G-d’s providence still plagues us. The commandment to erase the memory of Amalek requires of us to remove doubt, Amalek’s essence, by revealing G-d’s name and providence behind everything. For us to defeat this Amalek we must represent the opposing force. Just as Amalek dares to attribute even the clearest signs of G-d’s providence to coincidence, the Jewish People must go to the other extreme, and show that G-d is also behind the seemingly natural occurrences. This is the big lesson behind Purim, the holiday in which the miracles were masked by nature. Through reading the Megillah, which doesn’t mention Gd’s name openly, we are meant to put the unlikely coincidences together and reveal G-d’s name — even in seemingly natural events. This is the way to eradicate the memory of Amalek today. (Haamek Davar on Shemot 17:14; Michtav M’Eliyahu IV p. 288)

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