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Behind The Psychopathology of Amalek

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the Shabbat day on which, after reading the portion of the week, Tetzaveh, we read a short 3 line additional portion of the Torah found at the end of parshat Ki Teitzi. This portion tells us “to remember” and “to never forget” what Amalek did to B’nei Yisrael. Many authorities hold it is a mitzvah from the Torah to hear this reading this Shabbat.

However, on Purim day we will read another portion of Amalek. It is the one we just read 4 weeks ago found at the end of parshat B’shalach. There we were introduced to Amalek. This section begins with the words, “And Amalek came…” referring to that first encounter Israel had with Amalek. This confrontation took place right after the Children of Israel emerged from Egypt as free people.

On this opening phrase, “And Amalek came,” we may ask the question, where did Amalek come from?  It is a simple yet annoying question, the kind of question that lurks in the back of our minds. It is the kind of question we as adults don’t ask out of fear of appearing stupid. Rather, it is the kind of very basic question we might hear from a young child in elementary school. It is a very insightful question. The Torah never responds to this question. Why not?

The answer, I suggest, is that the Torah is telling us something about the nature of Amalek. It doesn’t really matter where Amalek came from. In his Laws of Kings, 5:5, the Rambam sets forth the command to wipe out Amalek. In this law he does not state “but their memory has long since perished,” as he does in the previous law, 5:4, regarding the command to destroy the seven Canaanite nations.

It would appear from the Rambam that Amalek is still in existence. In fact, the Torah substantiates this fact openly. “…a war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation.” (Shemot 17:16) So where is Amalek to be found?

The Talmud tells us the word “Amalek,” come from a combination of two Hebrew words, “Am” which “a nation” and “lek” which means “to lick.” The Talmud compares Amalek to a dog. “Just like a dog enjoys licking blood, so too Amalek is the nation that loves to lick the blood of Israel.” While originally there was a specific nation Amalek referred to in the Torah, the halachic definition of Amalek according to Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, is any person, group or nation that conspires to destroy “Keneset Yisroel,” the entity of Israel. Hence, many nations of the world over the course of history have fit this halachic definition. Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, Nazi Germany in the 30’s and 40’s and Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas together with many member nations of the United Nations fall well within the definition of Amalek.

What is their issue with Israel? Their hostility isn’t based upon some competitive notion, say for example, the desire to acquire some natural resource. Perhaps a country has outgrown its inhabitable territory and seeks to expand by conquering its neighbor. While these may not be legitimate reasons for going to war, this type of conflict is natural. On a smaller scale, isn’t this really the basis for competition in business? We talk of “a corporate takeover,” or “Walmart swallowed up a mom and pop business,” and other such expressions.

But this is not what is going on between Amalek and Israel. This is not the ideology behind every form of anti-Semitism, which is the PC way of saying anti-Jew. No, the hatred of Amalek towards Jews and Israel is of a different nature. What they hate and what disturbs them is simply the very existence of the Jew. Jews have enemies and often they don’t even know who they are. And even if we know who the enemy is, we often times underestimate the extent of the hatred.

Why did so many Jews during WWII go willingly to the slaughter? The answer lies in understanding that the Jews could not conceive of any human being acting out of pure hate for another’s existence. Surely the enemy has some semblance of identification and empathy. But to willfully destroy your cheap labor force, as Hitler did to the Jews, may his name be wiped out, is completely abnormal and irrational. This circumstance and many others like it throughout history demonstrate that the hatred of Amalek stems just from the fact that Jews exist. The Jewish existence is an affront to Amalek’s existence because the Jewish existence represents the complete antithesis of the values and lifestyle of Amalek. To save his self-image, Amalek is driven and compelled by his unruly nature not only to wipe out the Jew but to enjoy the process as well. This is a very disturbed and sick human psychopathology.

But since the Jew will always exist, the conflict will always exist until the coming of the Messianic era.  The very fact of Jewish existence in the world will create Amalek somewhere, someplace in every generation. It is only due to our everlasting covenant with Hashem, even when the hand of Hashem is not openly visible as related in the Megillat Esther, that we not only are able to survive but often times to thrive as well.

The Megillat Esther, which we will read this coming Wednesday night and Thursday, is referred to by our Sages as a book, “sefer,” and as a letter, “egerret.” It is a book in so far as it has the halachic characteristics of a Sefer Torah. However, it is also a letter. A letter is timely and current. Its message is important and relevant to the reader right now. Today, electronically we send an instant message, twitter or text. The information can’t wait. The message must be sent, delivered and read now! The Megilla’s most basic message to us is don’t fall asleep. Amalek is out there and we must be ready to stand up and take action to defend Judaism and defeat Amalek.

May Hashem give us the wisdom to see our enemies and grant us the ability to take the proper actions in our day as did Mordecai and Esther in theirs. In this merit may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel and all who support her existence.

Shabbat Shalom, Purim Sameach, Buen Purim, Freilachen Purim,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

** If you can, please join me for an adult education class this coming Monday, February 26 at 8:15 am on the Posnack Campus, in the Salama Media Center of the Hochberg Middle School. The topic will be: “Who can read the Megillah?” An analysis of the rabbinic obligation to read the Megillah.