God's War With Amalek - Through Yosef, Yehoshua and Mordekhai

  • Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon

When the nation of Israel departed from Egypt and the sea split for them, drowning the Egyptians, all the nations of the world were afraid to go to war with Israel. They said, "How shall we stand up to them? Pharaoh, who stood against them, was drowned by God in the sea. How then shall we succeed?" (Mekhilta de-Rashbi on Shemot 17). Amalek, however, was not afraid: "And he did not fear God" (Devarim 25:18, according to Rashi). This seems strange, from where did Amalek derive such courage? How was it that he was not afraid of Israel?

An additional question arises from Moshe's reaction. When he hears that Amalek is going to wage war against Israel, rather than girding his loins and preparing for war, he sends Yehoshua: "And Moshe said to Yehoshua... go out and fight against Amalek" (Shemot 17:9). Why did he not go out himself to fight?

The midrash provides the following explanation: "It is impossible that Moshe was standing by passively, and commanding Yehoshua to wage war against Amalek. Rather, it is tradition that the children of Eisav are only defeated by the children of Rachel" (Mekhilta de-Rashbi, 71). This poses its own difficulty: Why is it specifically the children of Rachel who are victorious over Amalek?

There is a third difficulty in understanding the war with Amalek. The victory over Amalek is of vital significance. The eyes of all the other nations are turned towards Amalek; if they are victorious, it will be a sign to all the other nations that Israel is indeed a realistic target for war. Why is the war against Amalek a regular, physical war rather than a miraculous one? Why does God not rain down stones from the heavens as occurs under the leadership of Yehoshua decades later, in the war against the five Emori kings (Yehoshua 10:11)?

The answer to all of these questions lies in the nature and character of Amalek. Amalek does not believe in God's providence over what happens in the world. As Chazal point out, Amalek stands out in his ideology of "coincidence" ("mikreh"); "asher karekha ba-derekh" (Esther Rabba, parsha 8). Amalek sees miracles happening around the nation of Israel, but he explains all of them as natural phenomena. He sees the splitting of the sea, but insists that it is a coincidental instance of tides rising and falling. He believes that their victory over Egypt was coincidental, and cannot see any reason why that "good luck" should repeat itself. Hence he is not afraid, and goes out to war against Israel.

The children of Rachel represent precisely the opposite ideology: there is no "coincidence" in the world. Her eldest son, Yosef, lives his life with a constant sense of standing before God, feeling God's presence and His providence over the whole world. There is no other figure to be found anywhere in Tanakh who mentions God as many times as Yosef does (19 times). The following examples of Yosef's speech demonstrate this ideology:

A) "And God sent me before you to preserve you a remnant in the earth..." (Bereishit 45:6). B) Yosef tells Pharaoh, "It is not me - God shall give Pharaoh a favorable answer." (Ibid. 41:16). (For further examples refer to Bereishit 40:8/41:26,32,51,52/45:4,9/48:9/50:20,25).

Yosef not only attempts, but succeeds in bringing about awareness of God's presence amongst the nations. Pharaoh declares, "Is there another man like this, one in whom the spirit of God rests?" (Bereishit 41:38).

Furthermore, the more a person believes in God's providence, the more that providence acts on him. Indeed, Yosef is rewarded for his unwavering faith in God: "And God was with Yosef and he became successful" (39:2); "And God blessed the house of the Egyptian because of Yosef" (39:5). (See also 39:3,21,23)

Clearly, then, Yosef (and therefore his descendant, Yehoshua) is the most suitable candidate to wage war against Amalek. Amalek aims to wipe out God's name, he wishes to negate God's rule of the world. Yosef, more than anyone else, represents God's rulership, and therefore it is he who is worthy of fighting against Amalek. He fights not only in defense of Am Yisrael, but also as a "war on behalf of God." This idea can be learned from the midrash (Shemot Rabba, perek 26): He who fears God is the best candidate for the war against someone who does not fear Him.

"Why (was the command to wage war given) to Yehoshua? He (Moshe) said to him (Yehoshua) - your forefather (Yosef) said, 'I fear God'. Let the son of he who said 'I fear God' come and punish the one about whom it was said, 'and he feared not God'."

The descendants of Binyamin, Rachel's second son, are involved in the fight as well. Sha'ul and Mordekhai both wage war against Amalek. Let's examine Mordekhai's fight against Amalek.

Mordekhai, too, is aware that he is fighting against someone who does not believe in God's existence and providence. The midrash teaches, "'And Mordekhai told Hatakh all that had happened to him' ("karahu") (Esther 4:1). He (Mordekhai) said to Hatakh, 'Go and say to her, the descendant of "karahu" has come upon you' (referring to the Torah's description of Amalek - "asher karekha ba-derekh")" (Esther Rabba, parsha 8).

According to the midrash, Mordekhai calls Haman "karahu", a name which denotes coincidence. Even on the literal level of the story itself, we see how Haman plans each step based on luck and lots. Even the planned date of the murder of the Jews is chosen by means of a lot - "they cast the lot before Haman" (Esther 3:7). Mordekhai stands ready to oppose this ideology. He knows that there is no such thing as chance, the world has a ruler and a governor - the capital has owners!

The Rambam (Hilkhot Ta'anit 1:3) warns against seeing events as being coincidental: "If they do not cry out and do not shout, but rather say 'this thing happened to us through the natural course of events; this trouble came about by chance,' this is the way of cruelty." Mordekhai lives according to the Rambam's perspective; no sooner does he find out about the impending disaster for Am Yisrael than he turns to the Ruler of the world: "And he cried out a great and bitter cry" (Esther 4:1). Mordekhai also knows that Am Yisrael is not led by chance. Even if they are not saved through Esther, "relief and deliverance shall arise for the Jews from elsewhere." (4:14)

The question still remains as to why the war with Amalek is a natural, non miraculous one. In general, when open miracles take place, even simple people believe that the hand of God was somehow involved. The Egyptian magicians themselves admitted, "it is the finger of God" (Shemot 8:15). Amalek, on the other hand, is not impressed by even the most obvious miracles, and sees them as occurring in the natural course of events. In doing so Amalek diminishes God's name, "As it were, so long as descendants of Amalek exist in the world, neither God's name nor His throne are complete" (Pesikta Rabbati, 12). The war against Amalek repairs this diminishing of God's name: "'To you, O God, is the Kingship' - this refers to the war against Amalek" (Berakhot 58b). "In other words, by waging war for Hashem against Amalek, His throne is exalted." (Rashi, ibid.)

The war against Amalek takes place specifically in a natural way, in order that all should know that even those phenomena which appear altogether natural are brought about by God's hand. The first natural victory brings proof, so that there can be no doubt: "And it was that when Moshe raised his hand Israel prevailed, and when he lowered his hand Amalek prevailed." (Shemot 17:11). Chazal expand on this: "'And it was that when Moshe raised his hand Israel prevailed' - surely it cannot be the case that Moshe's hands brought about victory or destruction in the war! Rather, this comes to teach us that so long as the eyes of Israel are directed upwards and they submit themselves to their Father in heaven, they will be successful. If not, they will fall" (Rosh Hashana 29b).

Megillat Esther, too, recounts an altogether natural story. The name of God is not mentioned even once in the megilla. Mordekhai commands that the days of Purim be commemorated, and it is through this that the nation comes to the realization that even those things that appear natural are in fact directed by God. Indeed, in the megilla itself the victory over Amalek leads to the reinstatement of God's name:

"In place of the thorn-bush a cypress will rise, and in place of the nettle, a myrtle..." (Yesha'yahu 55:13) "In place of the thorn-bush" - in place of Haman "a cypress will rise" - this refers to Mordekhai. "In place of the nettle" - in place of Vashti "a myrtle" - this is Esther the righteous one, who is called Hadassa. "And it shall be for Hashem for a name" - this refers to the reading of the megilla.' (Megilla 10b)

There is yet another connection between the fighters of Amalek; Yehoshua (Yosef) and Mordekhai. Those cities that were surrounded by a wall in the days of Yehoshua read Megillat Esther on the 15th of Adar, according to the opinion of the Tanna quoted in the first mishna of massekhet Megilla. R. Yehoshua bar Karcha, on the other hand (Ta'anit 2b), holds that the determining date is not "the days of Yehoshua ben- Nun," but rather "the days of Achashverosh." At first glance the Tanna of the mishna seems difficult to understand: What is the connection between Yehoshua and Megillat Esther?

Indeed, this question was posed by the Yerushalmi and several Rishonim, and a number of possible explanations were provided. According to what we have explained above, the problem is easily solved. Yehoshua and Mordekhai both fought against Amalek. In both cases God's providence was masked by seemingly natural occurrences. However, in the case of Yehoshua there was also visible proof: "And it was that when Moshe raised his hand, Israel prevailed, and when he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed" (Shemot 17:11; as explained above). Yehoshua is the one who taught a lesson to all generations: that even a seemingly "natural" victory is dependent on God's will and His involvement. The "natural" victory of Mordekhai and Esther takes on a new perspective in light of Yehoshua's war. The latter comes to interpret the former: just as Yehoshua's war was an example of God's wonders, so was the story of the megilla. Mordekhai hints at this himself when he makes the reading of the megilla dependent on "the days of Yehoshua ben-Nun".

This idea may also be contained in the words of the Ritva (Megilla 2a): "Chazal asked: Why did the Anshei Knesset Ha- gedola (Men of the Great Assembly) choose to refer this matter back to Yehoshua ben-Nun? The Rishonim z"l explained that it was because Yehoshua was the first to fight against Amalek, and Haman was a descendant of Amalek."

Amalek excels in his ideology of chance and coincidence, and therefore he has no fear of waging war against Am Yisrael since he sees their victories as pure luck. Yosef is the antithesis of Amalek, he feels the presence of God everywhere. His descendants and those of his brother (Binyamin), too, continue this line and fight against Amalek (Yehoshua and Mordekhai). Their wars are natural wars, demonstrating that not only were all the miracles of Egypt from God, but even those events and phenomena which appear altogether natural are brought about by God.

Today, too, there are those who believe in "luck", people who see all of God's miracles as luck and chance. Such people refer to our victory in the Six-Day War and the astonishing lack of casualties during the Gulf War as "luck." We call this "siyata di-shemaya" (assistance from heaven). "These by the chariot and those by horses; while we call on the name of God." (Tehillim 20:9).

Translated by Kaeren Fish