Purim and the Sin of Amalek

  • Harav Yehuda Amital




Purim and the Sin of Amalek

Based on a sicha by Harav Yehuda Amital zt”l


Adapted by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish



The Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:4) writes that the commandment to wipe out Amalek applies only where Amalek refuses Israel's call to make peace.  In his comments on the Rambam, Raavad notes that it is not sufficient for Amalek to make peace with Israel; they must accept upon themselves the seven Noachide laws.  The Kesef Mishneh maintains that this is what Rambam meant:


Included in [the concept of] "making peace" is the acceptance of the seven [Noachide] laws.  For if they accepted these seven laws, they would no longer be included in the category of the "seven [idolatrous] nations" [which Bnei Yisrael are commanded to annihilate when they enter the land], nor in the category of "Amalek"; they would be considered like [any other] fit Noachides.


From the above, we understand that the war against Amalek is not a national war, but rather a cultural one.  Judaism has no problem with the people of Amalek, but rather with their culture and ideology.  If Amalek would change their behavior and accept upon themselves the seven Noachide laws, there would no longer be any reason to wage war against them.


What exactly is the culture of Amalek, against which we are commanded to wage war? If we examine the sections in the Torah that speak about Amalek, we note certain recurring elements:


Remember that which Amalek did too you, ON THE WAY when you came out of Egypt.  For they MET YOU (karekha) ON THE WAY… (Devarim 25:17-18)


I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, that they laid wait for them ON THE WAY when they came up from Egypt. (I Shmuel 15:20)


Mordekhai told him of all that had HAPPENED TO HIM (karahu)… (Esther 4:7)


The Midrash notes the connection between the first source and the third:


"Mordekhai told him of all that had happened to him (karahu)" – He said to Hatakh: Go and tell her (Esther), "The descendant of 'karahu' has come upon you" – as it is written, "They met you (karekha) on the way." (Esther Rabba 8:5)


We see here that what characterizes Amalek throughout the generations is the concept of "mikreh" – attributing everything to randomness and coincidence - while Am Yisrael is permanently "on the way" (ba-derekh), a concept denoting continuity.  Amalek maintained an ideology of non-ideology: everything is permissible; there is no journey, no direction; everything is coincidental; there is no absolute value that must be held dear.  Am Yisrael, in contrast is always "on the way" – they have a direction and an objective; they have clear values to which they cleave. 


The word "machar" (tomorrow) also occurs twice in the sections about Amalek:


TOMORROW I shall stand atop the hill, with the staff of God in my hand. (Shemot 17:9)


TOMORROW I shall do as the king has said. (Esther 5:8)


Once again, Chazal connect these two verses:


"Tomorrow I shall do as the king has said" – why did Esther say "tomorrow"? Because all descendants of Amalek are destined to fall "on the morrow," as it is written, "Tomorrow I shall stand atop the hill." (Yalkut Shimoni Esther, 1056)


The Maharal explains that the word "tomorrow" expresses existential, moral duality: today we do that which is appropriate today, and tomorrow we do what is appropriate tomorrow.  This expresses constant flux, a lack of fixed priorities and values: that which is good today will not necessarily be good tomorrow; everything changes depending on the circumstances.  Esther understood that she faced an Amalekite worldview, and therefore she used the word "tomorrow."


In Judaism, by contrast, there are absolute ideals, and there is long-term planning.  All events are part of a larger plan, as expressed in the following midrash:


The brothers were busy selling Yosef; Yosef was busy with sackcloth and fasting; Reuven was busy with sackcloth and fasting; Yaakov was busy with sackcloth and fasting; Yehuda was busy with finding a wife.  And the Holy One was busy creating the light of the king Mashiach. (Bereishit Rabba 85:1)


Things do not happen coincidentally, simply according to whatever is going on right now.  Am Yisrael has certain objectives, and the nation must act in the world in accordance with its aims and aspirations.  In the story of Avraham, we encounter the expression "the way of God": he educated his children and household to know that there is a way, a direction, according to which one should behave.


Chazal point to the sin of Am Yisrael that caused Amalek to come and wage war against them:


Rabbi Levi said: To what could Israel be compared? To a person who had a son; he carried him upon his shoulders and led him through the marketplace.  The son saw things that he liked, and he said to his father: "Buy it for me" – and he bought it for him, a first time and a second time and a third. 

The son saw someone and said to him, "Have you seen my father?"

The father said to him: "Silly boy – you are riding on my shoulders, and everything that you ask for I give to you, and you ask this person, 'Have you seen my father?'"

What did the father do? He cast him off his shoulders – and a dog came and bit him. 

So it was when Israel came out of Egypt: the Holy One surrounded them with seven clouds of glory…; they asked for manna and He gave to them.  Once He had provided all of their needs, they began to wonder and ask, "Is God in our midst, or not?" (Shemot 17:7). The Holy One said to them, "You question My Presence? By your lives, I tell you that a dog will come and bite you" – and what did this refer to? This was Amalek. (Yalkut Shimoni, 261)


After all the Holy One had done for Israel, how was it possible for them to ask, "Is God in our midst, or not?" Such a question could only arise if the assumption was that nothing could be deduced from the past to the future.  In the past, God indeed accompanied and assisted Am Yisrael, but who can guarantee that this is still the case? Every period is characterized by its own values and ideas; that which was appropriate yesterday is not necessarily relevant today.  Everything is good in its own time, but is not necessarily applicable to every place and every time.  This approach represented the worldview of Amalek, and therefore this sin led God to teach Israel a lesson through the attack of Amalek.


Another midrash has a different view of the sin of Israel:


[The name] "Refidim" implies that they were lax (rafu yedeihem) in Torah; therefore Amalek came upon them. (Tanchuma, Beshalach 25)


This sin, too, relates to the worldview of Amalek.  One of the factors that leads to laxness or weakness (rifyon) in Torah learning is studying everything in a localized and limited way, without regard for the overall picture.  Chazal say of certain people that "their Torah becomes many fragments" (Sanhedrin 71a).  The Torah is a single system with fixed values and a clear objective; it is not a collection of ideas, each one of which stands alone.


The festival associated with the wiping out of Amalek is known to us as "Purim" – named after the "pur" (lot) cast by Haman.  This would seem to be a peculiar choice of name: why emphasize specifically the issue of casting lots? Surely, the important message of the day is that Haman wanted to destroy Am Yisrael; why is it important how he chose the day to fulfill his evil plan? The answer is that the "lot" symbolizes the Amalekite ideology, according to which everything is based on chance, on luck, on coincidence; there is no absolute value.


The Torah commands us to wipe out the memory of Amalek, because Amalek has lost the right to exist.  Every nation and ideology fulfills some role in the world.  Within that system, there is room for every individual, even if he is a negative influence, just as we include galbanum among the ingredients of the incense, even though its odor is unpleasant.  But Amalek is not part of this whole, because according to their view there is no whole, nor any obligating value: everything is permissible and everything is coincidental.  This is a most dangerous ideology, and the furthest removed from Judaism.  Every type of idolatry has something in common with Judaism, since it includes an acknowledgment of and search for divinity.  Amalek possesses no common denominator with Judaism, since they reject the very idea of seeking any sort of value. 


Since Sancheriv mixed up the nations, there is no nation that is identified as Amalek – but the Amalekite world-view still exists.  This view finds its contemporary expression in the trend known as postmodernism.  Modern culture upholds progress and other values, but postmodern philosophy denies the existence of any absolute values at all.  It posits that there is no need to aspire to progress; in fact, there is no need to aspire towards anything.  There is no ideology, everything is permissible – just as Amalek maintained.  Judaism is therefore completely opposed to this view. 


On the individual level, Chassidism teaches that every person contains a small degree of "Amalekism," and each person must work on himself in order to wipe it out.


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Zakhor 5756 [1996].)