Destroying Our Internal Amalek

Yesterday we read zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), which demands that we remain permanently focused on our obligation to wipe out our historical nemesis that attacked us even at our moment of utmost strength and glory.

He cooled you off and made you [appear] tepid, after you were boiling hot. For the nations were afraid to fight with you, but [Amalek] came forward and started and showed the way to others. This can be compared to a bathtub of boiling water into which no living creature could descend. Along came an irresponsible man and jumped headfirst into it. Although he scalded himself, he [succeeded to] make other [nations] think it was cooler [than it really was]. [Rashi to Deuteronomy 25:18, quoting Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Seitzei 9]

What gave Amalek the temerity to attack at the very hour the entire world recognized God’s might and splendor? And what motivated this extreme degree of self-sacrifice – going into battle knowing full well it could very well be their last?

In its essence, Amalek sought to cultivate doubt, not doubt in God’s existence but rather as a means of challenging our uniqueness, our special relationship with Him. Amalek cynically questioned whether it is possible for imperfect humans to foster an enduring, sacred bond with the divine, and seized on any breakdowns in our faith – such as in Maaseh U’meriva (Exodus 17:7-8) – to reinforce our spiritual frailty.

How is it possible that the Jewish people, who had just experienced a series of the most unbelievable miracles in history, could challenge God’s ability to provide even the most basic elements to sustain life? What happened to their faith? And why did their lapse in belief result specifically in an attack by Amalek?

The answer is that true, sustainable faith does not emerge from open miracles. In fact, the exact opposite is true (see Maimonides, Yesodei Hatorah 8:2). The constant use of miracles implies that the necessary conditions for a natural, enduring divine presence are absent, that G-d must assert Himself in this world in order to be recognized. In contrast, real, genuine belief emerges from a deep sense of care for a personal relationship with God, a desire to connect with Him out of pure love, not due to his overwhelming power or open presence.

Amalek, the quintessential cynic, understood this well and waited for the opportunity to expose any weaknesses in the Jews’ spiritual connection. Thus, when some Jews experienced a lapse in their faith, Amalek was more than ready to attack, and was even willing to suffer serious harm in order to achieve its goal.

This same pattern repeated itself many centuries later, when Haman the Amalekite presented his Final Solution to Achashveirosh. Haman did not question God’s existence, but rather His willingness to intervene on behalf of a nation that “rebelled against its G-d and still have not changed their wicked ways.” (Esther Rabbah 7:13)

Haman sensed a weakness in the bond between G-d and His chosen nation when he observed its frivolous conduct at the royal feast in Shushan, and seized on the opportunity to permanently break that sacred link. Only through the efforts of Mordechai and Esther to focus their nation on the importance of reconnecting with its Maker were the Jews able to overcome the terrible decree of annihilation and emerge victorious over their arch-rival.

Of course, it was this same assault on the spiritual connection between the Jews and their God that inspired the Nazis, the modern day Amalekites, to attempt to achieve their goals. Despite Hitler’s stated objective to combat attacks on German nationalism and racial purity, ideals that the Jews, in particular, had allegedly defiled through their corrupt modernistic and leftist leanings, the Nazis focused primarily on the Jewish religion, and aimed to completely debase the possessors of that special heritage.

The refinements of cruelty were reserved for pious Jews and rabbis, whose traditional Jewish garb and whose beard and side locks identified them as quintessentially Jewish. The Germans deliberately chose observant Jews to force them to desecrate and destroy the sacred articles of Judaism, even to set fire to synagogues. In some places the Germans piled the Torah scrolls in the marketplace, compelling the Jews to set fire to the pile, and dance around it. Another German pleasure was “feeding” pork to pious Jews, usually in the presence of an invited audience. [Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, pp. 201-202]

Of course, this struggle between Jewish values and those espoused by Amalek does not only manifest itself in such stark terms. We each struggle in some way to properly identify the significant role that God plays within our own lives, and to ascribe adequate credit for all that He does on our behalf.

Rabbi Chaim Freidlander, zt”l, (Sifsei Chaim, Vol. 2, p. 171-172) writes that before we can eliminate any form of external Amalek, we must first attempt to identify and remove any vestiges of that nation from within our own selves. To the extent that we see matters in our personal lives as happenstance, or the consequence of purely natural events, we are guilty of harboring a piece of Amalek within our own hearts. Even more so, if we go so far as to downplay valid attempts to infuse the world with additional holiness, we are removing any possibility of truly fulfilling this vital mandate.

It is impossible for us to properly fulfill the commandment of physically destroying Amalek today. However, we are certainly required to attempt to destroy its memory, the intellectual and emotional Amalek which affects us all. In so doing, we will bring God’s throne that much closer to its completed state, and take meaningful steps towards fulfilling Zachariah’s prophecy, “and God shall be king over all the earth; on that day the God shall be one and his name one.” (Zachariah 14:9)

Wishing you a freilichen (joyous) Purim!