Wherein I discuss the true nature of the mitzvah of Shabbos Zachar by examining the many apparent contradictions between the story in Exodus and the command in Deuteronomy. Furthermore, I delve deeper into the connection between Purim and the reading of the story of Amalek, demonstrating that the connection is far more significant than the surface explanations provided with regard to the lineage of Haman. I also examine why Purim, like the war of God with Amalek, is described as being "in every generation" with a perpetual command to remember both Purim and Amalek.
The Shabbos before Purim, we read the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek as given in the book of D’varim (Deut.) Additionally, on the day of Purim, we read the story of how Amalek attacked us in the desert. Our sages have explained in Tractate Megillah and elsewhere the connection between Purim and Amalek, so I shall not repeat it here.
Instead, I wish to examine the nature of the command that is given with regard to Amalek, as illustrated by the differences between the story of Amalek and their attack on Israel in the desert [Ex. 17:8-16] and the command given in Deut. [25:17-19]. As we shall see from the text itself, there are many contradictions and many questions which we must resolve. As we shall see, this examination will reveal deeper connections to the holiday of Purim than the surface connection of Haman as a putative descendant of Amalek.
Additionally, this should serve as a caution and a rebuke to those who would seek facile explanations of the story of Amalek to justify their own views of the world. For in twisting the words of the Torah and the sages to meet their own ends, these foolish ones seek to take the crown of Torah and place it upon their own heads.
The Context For Amalek’s Attack.
We begin in Exodus 17. But rather than begin with the story of Amalek, we must begin with the first part of the chapter. The Jewish People journey through the wilderness of Zin “according to the command of the Lord.” When they reach Riphiddim, they find no water. The people complain to Moses, who admonishes them: “Why do you fight with me, why do you test the patience of God?” But still the people murmured saying: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill me, and my children and my cattle with thirst?” Moshe cries to God, who instructs Moshe to assemble the elders of Israel, hold aloft his staff “with which he struck the waters of the Nile” and parade in front of Israel to an outcropping of rock. Moshe is instructed to strike the rock, at which point water rushes out. The people drink their fill. But they name the place “Masa oo’Meriva” (“travail and arguing”) “because of the arguing of Israel, and that they tested God by saying: ‘Is the Lord in our midst or not?’”
God’s Response to Israel’s Questioning His Presence In Their Midst: Hester Panim
It is this questioning whether or not God is really with them that triggers the sudden appearance of Amalek. They strike the Children of Israel as they are still gathered in Rephidim, the place they questioned whether God was truly with them. They have no warning and no instruction. Unlike before, when they marched “in accordance with the command of God,” the children of Israel now find themselves bereft of both Divine Protection (since the Pillar of Cloud should have protected them from the attack, as it protected them from the Egyptians), and Divine instruction.
In Judaism, we have a concept known as “hester panim,” (God) “hiding his face.” This is repeated numerous times in the book of Deuteronomy as a punishment for Israel abandoning God in their hearts or in their actions. As Israel turns from God, so God turns from Israel, leaving us at the mercy of natural forces and natural enemies. So too here. Despite the ongoing miracles that have surrounded the Children of Israel since the plagues commenced, they still question whether God is really with them. Accordingly, God turns his face from Israel and they become open to attack from a band of desert raiders who pray on the weak.
That God is aware that such a raid is inevitable absent His divine intervention does not, of course, relieve Amalek of the moral consequences of their actions. God has created a world in which the wicked may commit their crimes as freely as the righteous may perform their deeds of charity and virtue. What is extraordinary is not the attack of Amalek, but that God would otherwise intervene and miraculously shelter the Children of Israel from harassment and attack.
Because God has reverted Israel to the “state of nature,” Moses must lead the people without divine instruction. Moses therefore responds by acting in “derech hateva” (the natural way of the world) rather than calling on God directly to miraculously punish their enemies with a visible miracle. Instead, he calls on Joshua to recruit an army to strike back at Amalek and drive off the invaders.
While this is the natural way of the world, it is still an incredible break for the people of Israel and their experience. Only a few chapters ago, God decided to avoid taking the Children of Israel on the direct route to the Promised Land “lest they see war and return to Egypt.” [Ex. 10:17] Now they must take up arms against an aggressive people who inflicted casualties on them, rather than rely upon Divine protection or divine vengeance. Nevertheless, Moshe reassures them that they will not be entirely without divine aid. Moshe tells Joshua that he will climb to a height “with the staff of the Lord in my hand.” As repeatedly demonstrated, the staff is a symbol by which Moses becomes the instrument of the Divine command.
Nevertheless, we should note this astounding turn of events. For once, Moshe does not await the instruction of God to raise the staff as a symbol to Israel. Rather, Moses informs Joshua to tell the army that Moshe will, on his own initiative, take the staff to a visible height to invoke the protection of God.
To their credit, the Children of Israel agree to do so. Astonishingly, in light of their previous conduct, they do not cry and beg to return to Egypt. Perhaps inspired by the fact that they actually survived a battle, they now unquestioningly follow the instructions of Moshe. The next day, Joshua leads his men out to battle, while Moshe ascends to the height with Aaron and Aaron’s son Hur. When Moshe lifts his arms in visible supplication to God, the Children of Israel triumph in battle. When his hands become too heavy, the Amalekites gain the advantage. Also acting on their own initiative, Aaron and Hur provide Moshe with a stone to sit upon and hold his two arms in the air. As a result, Joshua and his army are able to “weaken” the Amalekites “with the edge of the sword.”
God’s Instruction to Moshe and Moshe’s Response.
Following this display of victory through faith, God re-establishes direct communication with Moshe. He instructs Moshe to “write this as a remembrance in the Book, and place it in the ear of Joshua, for I shall assuredly wipe out [Hebrew: Macho Emcheh] the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens.” Moshe then, builds an altar “and he called its name The Lord is my banner. And he said, ‘For by the Hand of the Lord upon His Throne: it is war, between God and Amalek in every generation.”
I will add that the Hebrew here is somewhat ambiguous, especially when including the musical notation (“ta’amei ha’mikra”) as punctuation.[i]
The Actual Command to Israel As Described in Deuteronomy.
Interestingly, our sages do not require that we read the actual story of Amalek to satisfy the Biblical injunction that we remember what Amalek did and do not forget to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Instead, the requirement to fulfill this commandment is satisfied by reading the much shorter section in Deuteronomy 25: 17-19. I reproduce the entirety in translation below.
“Remember that which Amalek did to you on the road when you left Egypt. How he came upon you[ii] on the way and he smote the hindermost,[iii] all the weak ones that trailed behind, you were weary and exhausted, and they did not fear the Lord.[iv] Therefore, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies about you in the land that God has given you as an inheritance to possess, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget!”
Critical Differences Between the Conclusion of the Exodus Story and the Command in Deuteronomy.
Of greatest importance is the shift from God being the actor who will blot out the memory of Amalek to Israel being the actor. In Exodus, God declares that Moshe should write down, and then place specifically “in the ear of Joshua” that ‘I (God) will certainly wipe out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven.”[v] Additionally we are told (whether by God or Moshe is unclear from the text) that the war between God and Amalek will continue "forever”(despite God eliminating the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens).
By contrast, in Deuteronomy, the command is given to Israel “Timcheh,” you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven.” Nor is this command given for all time, nor does the text give the command in double language. To the contrary, God specifies that the Children of Israel are not to take any steps to wipe out Amalek until God has settled them in the land and they have peace with their surrounding enemies. At that point, the wiping out of Amalek is to be a one time event. Indeed, despite the direct instruction by God to Moshe that he is to “put this in the ear of Joshua,” the command to wipe out Amalek does not come to Israel until Saul is king (Samuel I: ch 15][vi]
But whereas we have no double language with regard to the “wiping out the memory of Amalek,” we do have double language in Deuteronomy (although not in quite the same way) with regard to remembrance. God affirmatively commands Israel to “remember that which Amalek did to you.” At the end of the command God reframes this in the negative “do not forget!”
Finally, in Exodus Amalek are not described as arriving by chance or concentrating on the stragglers.[vii] The text in Exodus simply says “and Amalek came and warred with Israel in Refidim.” Indeed, we are not even told that the Children of Israel had resumed their march and thus created stragglers. While the description in Exodus does not contradict the details supplied in Deuteronomy, it is curious that they do not appear in the otherwise more detailed description of what happened. In Deut., God does not want Israel to focus on the details of the fight – indeed, Israel’s subsequent victory over Amalek is not even mentioned. Amalek is to be remembered as opportunistic cowards who did not fear God – and by extension did not hesitate to plan a cowardly ambush and raid on the helpless.
In other words, in a mere 3 sentences, the entire focus of the Amalek story is shifted. Israel, rather than God, is to become the primary actor through the generations. The physical victory over the nation of Amalek is a one time event, whereas the primary command for the Jews throughout the ages is to remember what Amalek did and to not forget it. Further, it is this 3 sentence commandment that is considered the fulfillment of the Biblical command. By contrast, the full story in Exodus is only read on the day of Purim, and then only because of its connection with the Purim story. If the point is to remember that which Amalek did, why don’t we read the actual story of what Amalek did?
Most importantly, how do we reconcile all this with the concept that God has declared an eternal war with Amalek, using the strongest language for emphasis. God is describing as actually making a vow (“by the hand on the throne of God, there is war between God and Amalek from generation to generation”). The concept is itself peculiar. In no other place is God described as waging an eternal war. Certainly not against a nation God subsequently instructs Israel to destroy in its entirety. Furthermore, God is infinitely merciful. Why an eternal war against Amalek, for an act God allowed to take place and a fight from which God apparently absented himself through any obvious physical manifestation. Contrast this with God’s personal intervention at the Red Sea against the Egyptians, where the Egyptians proclaimed “God himself goes to war against Egypt.”[viii]
Had God wanted to wipe out the nation of Amalek, he could have done so as assuredly as he wiped out the Egyptian Army. But despite God’s proclaiming an eternal personal war against Amalek, God declines to manifest himself directly – either here or when he commands Saul to carry out the annihilation of Amalek.
Resolving the Contradiction: The Construct of Amalek
We can only resolve these contradictions by looking beyond the surface of the nation of Amalek and understanding the nature of Amalek. Let us recall the background event that triggered Amalek’s appearance. The Children of Israel tested God by saying “is the Lord with us or not.” Amalek then appears “by chance” and inflicts a humiliating defeat on the Children of Israel. Despite the miraculous nature of their entire existence in the desert, on this occasion they must act in accordance with the laws of nature. Nevertheless, so that the Children of Israel understand that their strength and protection comes from God, the Children of Israel only triumph when Moshe raises his staff, which is the consistent symbol of God’s delegation of authority to Moshe. But the power is not in Moshe, as demonstrated by his physical exhaustion. Only the combination of Aaron and Hur assisting Moshe, and Joshua and the Children of Israel , provide victory.
It is this element that the Children of Israel are supposed to remember. The “eternal war” between God and Amalek is God’s eternal pledge to protect Israel from its enemies if Israel remembers that “God is with them” (and, of course, behaves in a way that God has declared is a necessary pre-requisite for Him to dwell in Israel’s midst). This is why it is so critical for Israel to “remember” and “not forget,” particularly at the time when God gives Israel peace from its external enemies. As Deuteronomy repeatedly warns, the tremendous danger for Israel is not in times of oppression, but in times of peace and prosperity.[ix] But as long as Israel remembers the lesson they learned from the attack of Amalek, one of national unity and faith in God, then God shall eternally prevent enemies like Amalek from arising and prevailing against us. Thus, as long as we eternally remember and do not forget, God will declare eternal war and wipe the memory of Amalek, i.e., the targeting of the Jewish people as uniquely vulnerable, weak and desirable to attack, from the face of the Earth.
Further Proof, the Incident With the Water In Numbers Contrasted With That In Exodus.
As proof of this approach, it is important to compare the incident that triggered the attack of Amalek with a similar incident recorded with regard to the next generation – the generation that would conquer the land. As described in Numbers 20:2-13. Following the death of Miriam, the people are once again left without water. Unlike the previous generation, who murmured against Moses and openly wondered if God was really with them, the new generation has no doubts about God. Instead, they blame Moshe and Aaron. After all, if God is infallible and genuinely with the Jewish people, then it follows that their current problem must come from some failure on the part of Moshe and Aaron.
Additionally, the people are apparently satisfied by a simple showing that God is still with Moshe and Aaron. Moshe and Aaron go to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and prostrated themselves and the glory of God appeared to them. (20:6) By contrast, in Exodus, the people continued to murmur against Moses to the point where Moshe feared for his life. (Exodus 17:4). Accordingly, in recognition of the spiritual growth of the people, God commands Moshe to speak to the rock and have it bring forth water. Instead, Moshe denounces the people and declares: “Listen here you rebels! From this rock we shall bring forth water!” Whereupon Moshe hits the rock and water comes forth.
God rebukes Moshe and Aaron in a way that at first blush seems peculiar: “Because you did not have faith in me to sanctify me before the eyes of the people.” What can this mean? How would speaking to the rock have provided “sanctification,” and why is hitting it with the staff demonstrate any less faith? Moshe and Aaron doubted God’s judgment with regard to the spiritual evolution of the people. Moshe and Aaron assumed that the people would still require a physical manifestation of God’s power, since the people were rebelling against God. But God understood that the people had moved to a new level of spiritual growth. They no longer ask “is God with us or not?” Thus, by failing to acknowledge the spiritual growth of the people, Moshe and Aaron failed to sanctify God further by demonstrating the sufficiency of prayer and faith over a physical manifestation of God’s delegated authority.
Nevertheless, the Torah acknowledges the enhanced spiritual growth of Israel in the final line. The location is called “Mai Meriva,” the waters of argument, in contrast to the incident in Exodus which was called “Massa v'Meriva,” argument and testing. In contrast to the insulting question “is God with us or not?” The text in Numbers concludes “these are the waters of argument, for the children of Israel argued with God, and he was sanctified by them.”
In other words, even without the demonstration, the Children of Israel clearly understood that God was in their midst, and that they did not require a physical symbol. Their spiritual growth from the parallel incident in Exodus is echoed in the recounting of the command Deuteronomy. As long as the Children of Israel continue to remember the essential lesson that God is with them as long as they maintain their faith, God will continue to protect them from Amalek.
Another Proof, The Incident After the Spies.
We see additional proof that God uses Amalek to specifically punish Israel when they fail to believe in God and when they do not have God in their midst from Numbers 14:40-45. As related there, Moses sent spies to investigate the Land of Israel before invading. The spies returned with a report of the military strength of the inhabitants that filled the people with despair. God decrees that this generation will therefore wander 40 years in the desert and their children will inherit the land.
The next, the Children of Israel et up bright and early and tell Moshe: “We will go up to the place God has promised us, because we have sinned [in refusing to go].” Moshe warns them “Go not up, for the Lord is not among you . . . And the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you will fall by the sword.” Nevertheless, the people go up and try to take the land, but “there came down upon them the Amalekites, and the Canaanites who dwelled on that hill, and they smote [the Children of Israel] and harried them all the way to Horma.”
Unlike the Canaanites, who are described as actually living there, the Amalekites are described as “descending on them” in an apparent gratuitous show of force. What is important here is that God is explicitly not with the Children of Israel. It is this deliberate abstention of God that once again brings the Amalekites.
Comparison To The Purim Story
The Talmud states that we have this reading on Purim morning because “it is related to the matter of the day [Purim].” The traditional explanation is that Haman is assumed to be a direct descendant of the last king of Amalek, and that the unreasoning hatred of Haman for the Jews is emblematic of the unreasoning hatred of Amalek for the Jewish people.
But having now examined the story of Amalek in Exodus, we can discern a deeper connection between Purim and the assigned reading. Like the Exodus story of Amalek, Purim is a story where God’s presence is hidden. Both the danger to the Jewish people and the salvation of the Jewish people appear to happen by natural means – albeit with peculiar coincidences. Haman, like Amalek, seeks to attack the Jews when they seem weakest as a people. “There is a certain people, scattered and mixed in among the other peoples of your kingdom; their laws are different from any other people, they do not do what the King laws – there is no benefit to the King to preserve them.” As with the attack by Amalek, the previously divided people are united and come together to cry out to God. It requires the combination of Mordechai and Esther’s efforts with the willingness of the Jews to stand up for themselves and fight their would-be murderers for them to triumph.
Similarly, like the command to remember that which Amalek did, the Jews adopt the holiday of Purim as an eternal remembrance. “Therefore these days [the 14th and 15th of Adar] shall be remembered and performed in every generation, in every family, in every country, in every city; that these days of Purim shall never disappear from out of the Jewish people, nor shall the memory of these days cease among their descendants.“[x]
Furthermore, just as the incident with Amalek was a necessary precursor to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, so we are told that Purim was necessary for Israel to fully accept the Torah and place their entire trust in God. As Tractate Megillah explains, quoting the Midrash, the Children of Israel only accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai because God held the Mountain suspended over their heads and asked if they would accept the Torah. Only then did the people respond “we shall do it, now tell us that we may hear it.” But on Purim all of the people voluntarily accepted the Torah and turned to God,.
None of this, of course, contradicts the commonly known Midrash that provides a surface connection with Amalek through Haman’s lineage. But our appreciation of the meaning and symbolism of Purim is made deeper if we understand the full construct of Amalek and how Purim recapitulates the story of Amalek and how our faith in God and national unity are the means by which we oppose Amalek when Amalek physically manifests itself in the world, just as we should understand that it is our failure to be confident that God is in our midst that causes God to turn his face from us and allow the spirit of Amalek to descend upon us.
Rejection of Modern Nations As “Amalek” As justification For Immoral Action.
Finally, I will conclude with a brief meditation on those That there are those who claim that the nation of Amalek exists today, and that they are a named people, the Palestinians or more broadly the “Arabs,” and that therefore it is incumbent upon us to “destroy” them. V’davar pela![xi] For as the sages of the Talmud have explained, none of the ancient races that were named in the land of Israel still exist today, because Sancherib carried them all off and mixed them so that they have no distinction.[xii] Furthermore, our sages tell us that the Arabs, of whom the Palestinians are a part, are descended from Ishmael the Son of Abraham. But we know that Amalek was descended from Esau and the Canaanite woman Adah![xiii]
Wherefore we know that the Palestinians cannot be descended of Amalek. As for those who would say they are the incarnation of Amalek that we should physically wage war against them, I will say to them – have you the Urim V’Tumim and a Cohen Mashiach?[xiv] Have you a Sanheddrin that can declare a Holy War? If not, then only ignorance can excuse this interpretation. For without either direct prophecy, such as God gave to Saul, or a declaration from a duly appointed Sanhedrin, there is no halachic justification for declaring a Milchemet Mitzvah.
But more importantly, such foolishness takes the true mitzvah of Zecher amalek, as I have explained above, and stands it on its head. For as I have demonstrated above by diligent examination of the language, it is God who has sworn “eternal war” against Amalek, whereas the command to Israel is to remember the lesson of Amalek. Only when we have created a true community of Israel, in which God will chose to dwell,[xv] will the spirit of Amalek depart. Those who say backwards, that we should put our strength in arms and march upon those they would declare “Amalek,” will instead themselves fall and fail, as was demonstrated by the Children of Israel when they defied God and sought to conquer the land after the incident of the spies. [xvi]
Therefore we should reject those foolish ones, even if they otherwise show themselves to be men and women of wisdom, who claim that by designating a nation as “Amalek” they can chose to go to war against them. For even in the Megillah, Mordechai and Esther did not order or permit the Jews to fight against their enemies without provocation. Rather, they specifically gave the Jews leave to defend themselves against their enemies. Those who had plotted against them were utterly unpunished, even if they only held back because of fear. Only those who chose to attack without provocation, based on Haman’s initial decree, were slaughtered and their property pillaged.
Accordingly, even if those who claim that Palestinians or Arabs are “Amalek,” or “the spirit of Amalek,” have no basis in halacha or aggaditah to take up arms against them or to pillage their property other than in self-defense from a genuine attack. Moreover, if they would truly defend the Jewish people from the spirit of Amalek, then they would not seek to fight them with arms. Rather, they would seek to embrace their brothers and sisters in Israel, and make teshuvah for their sins. Then would God do as he promised and “make eternal war” with Amalek, so that we would again be at peace in the land that God has given us for an inheritance.
Written this 9th Day of Adar, 5777
Rather than be afraid of the miracles God had performed on behalf of the Children of Israel in Egypt, the Amalekites rationalized that God had the same limits as a mortal or their own idols, and could therefore be deceived if something occurred outside his direct physical manifestation/”line of sight.” In likening God to a mortal leader, they demonstrated a complete absence of understanding or respect for God. This also prompted them to assume that they could attack Israel in the rear and carry off their captives without being identified or subject to retaliation.