Tetzaveh: Something Wicked

Were they stupid? Who would start a fight against God Himself? And yet Amalek did just that...

7 min

Rabbi Jacob Rupp

Posted on 04.02.22

It’s obvious that mitzvot make us better, more sensitive and kind people. We are obligated to welcome the stranger, visit the sick, and rejoice with the bride and groom. We are charged to repair the world and not to be wasteful. We are also commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. That’s right folks; the genocide of the Amalekites is just as crucial as the mitzvah of keeping kosher. It’s funny; I don’t remember learning about this in Hebrew school.
Whenever Parshat Tetzaveh is read on the Shabbat before Purim, the regular Maftir is replaced with the conclusion of Parshat Ki Teitzei which reminds us of how Amalek attacked us as we were leaving Egypt. The Torah commands us, “…you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens, you shall not forget!” (Devarim, 25:19).
That sounds savage! Before our ingrained liberalism gets the best of us and we declare the Torah totally barbaric and insensitive (God forbid!), let's take a few moments to learn about this mitzvah. Who were these people – the Amalikes – are and what do represent. By examining their actions and ideology, we can understand the mitzvah and how it ties into the holiday of Purim.
Zachor – Remember!
Before instructing us to blot out Amalek’s name, the Torah explains why. “Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way when you were leaving Egypt, that he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God" (Devarim 25:17). In informing us that our enemy has no fear of God, the Torah offers an understanding of Amalek’s nature.
We were attacked by Amalek shortly after our redemption from Egypt. The Exodus was an amazing event! The entire world watched a group of oppressed, emaciated and overworked slaves overcome the most powerful nation on Earth. God Himself reigned down hell upon the Egyptians and split the sea for His beloved nation. After witnessing such miracles, it would seem that none of the nations of the world would dare to wage a war against the Jews. After the splitting of the Sea, the Torah states, "The nations heard… fright gripped them" (Shemot 15:14). Wasn't it foolish to attack the Jews after the all-mighty and all-powerful God demonstrated that He was on their side?
First Atheists
The Amalek nation, however, did exactly that! Were they stupid? Who would start a fight against God Himself? Only those who do not believe in His existence. The Amalekites were the first atheists, adherents to a belief system far more abhorrent to Judaism than idolatry. An idolater recognizes that exterior forces control the world. Although the idolater might pray to a rock, the sun, or a piece of plastic, by acknowledging that he is not in control, it is possible for him to come to the realization that the Almighty runs the world. Our holy forefather, Avraham (Abraham), did exactly that! To an atheist, however, everything is coincidence, there is no Divine intervention. From Amalek’s perspective, just because ten plagues brought Egypt to its knees and the sea just happened to split meant that the Jews were lucky.
Rabbi Shimson Raphael Hirsch explains that Amalek and the Jewish people are diametrically opposed. The Jewish people exist to sanctify God. Everything we possess, including our intelligence, strength, and wealth, are tools to enable us to carry out our mission of uniting this world with the next. “Our national character is woven of justice and the duties of love for the Almighty, and that serving Him is our greatest purpose" (Hirsch Chumash, Devarim, 25:17, P.523).
On the other hand, since Amalek has no such higher calling, his goal is the acquisition of power in this world. Says Rabbi Hirsch, “Amalek finds its strength in the might of its sword and its love of glory in treading down all unprepared weaker ones" (Hirsch Chumash). So why did Amalek bother to attack the Jewish people? We were weak and defenseless after our years of bondage. If Amalek wished to show their military dominance, why didn't they pick on someone their own size?
Amalek fought us because we are his greatest enemy. Our existence is his greatest threat. It is our task to bring the light of the Almighty to the world, and his goal is to deny that that light exists. Our survival is proof of God's existence. Our history, our scholarship, and our mindset all bear witness to Him. Amalek wanted to rid the world of the knowledge of God and awareness of absolute morality. Therefore, they had a vested interest in attacking the Jewish people.
Why Amalek?
But why is Amalek so dangerous that we have a mitzvah to eliminate his memory entirely? After all, throughout our history, we have had numerous enemies. Thy either demand our spiritual destruction or lust for our total extermination. The Greeks desired our spiritual demise. They were happy to accept us as long as we became completely assimilated and renounced our spiritual distinctiveness. The Greeks did not destroy our Temple; rather they profaned it and converted it into a house of idolatry. They did not demand our physical deaths, but wanted our spiritual demise.
On Purim, the Jewish people were threatened by a different enemy. The wicked Haman attempted to massacre the entire Jewish population, regardless of belief, background, or mitzvah observance. An assimilated Jew was as much of a threat as a religious one. Haman was a direct descendant of Amalek and our mere existence posed a threat to the legacy of his ancestors. Although we were delivered, Amalek's legacy was not completely blotted out, as history has demonstrated time and time again. In Germany in the 1940’s, the same evil ideology wreaked hell on the Jewish people, destroying religious and non-religious alike. And this Adar, Haman’s descendants are alive and well in modern day Persia (Iran), spouting hate and lusting for our destruction. So while it makes sense for Amalek wage a war against us, why attack where we are weakest? Sure a nation that prides itself on prowess and strength should fight honorably; face to face, to assert their superiority.
Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik explains that in attacking the weak Jewish nation, Amalek was also battling the Jewish concept of absolute morality. Many nations have adopted the Jewish values of mercy and basic human value. It is considered immoral for soldiers to attack non-combatants; women, children, the sick, the injured, etc. For a nation that denies God, the concepts of immorality and basic human values are illogical; wipe out the enemy in the fastest and easiest way possible, starting with the babies and moving up. We see Amalek's methods of Amalek in our modern age, for example the monsters that blow themselves up in malls and in buses with the sole goal of killing as many Jews as possible. It is this reason Rabbi Soloveitchik says that Amalek is explicitly revolting to God.
Divine Providence
We can understand the verse, “He struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted,” to mean something else entirely. Amalek attacked us when we arrived at Refidim. We were tired and thirsty, and complained to Moshe (Moses). We went so far as to suggest that God did not have the ability to provide us with water (Shemot 17:1-3). After witnessing the greatest miracles in history, how could our ancestors believe the Almighty Himself was incapable of providing water?!
Those that made such a claim were under the false pretense that while God has the ability to perform miracles, He chooses not to interfere with the natural order that He set in place. While God might occasionally put on a miraculous fireworks show, He does not intervene in the usual course of nature. Our ancestors were lacking trust that God is with us at every moment, constantly recreating our reality to give us the ultimate good. Our ancestors became spiritually weak, and because they were spiritually weak, they were susceptible to Amalek’s attack. Once we understand this, we can understand why this war must be waged and how we can win the battle.
Same Enemies
It is difficult to read the news these days without shuddering in fear. Our enemies are growing more ferocious and our friends, more meek. The chips seemed stacked against us. While trying to hide their murderous ideology behind diplomacy and religion, their goal is evident. It appears as if our very existence is in danger. Yet from what we learned about Amalek, it seems as if we are supposed to aggressively take the upper hand in this struggle to overcome the fanatics and hate mongers who wish to do us harm. God would never command us to do the impossible. We must remember that not much has changed since the days of old. The enemies we face today are the same ones that wanted to destroy us in the desert and in Shushan.
From a Torah perspective, everything in this world are tools of the Almighty. Even our most ferocious enemies are agents of God. Everything He puts in the world is there to test us and to strengthen us. Just as when the Jews left Egypt, we are most susceptible to attack when we allow ourselves to be weakened. When we lose sight of our relationship with God, we open ourselves to those who lie in waiting for our destruction.
Purim and Chanukah
By comparing Chanukah and Purim, we can understand how to react to the threats that are facing us. When the Greeks threatened Jewish spirituality, we responded with force and were victorious. When Amalek’s descendant threatened the Jewish nation in its entirety, we prayed, fasted, and beseeched the Almighty to deliver us. When the Jews connect themselves to the Almighty, they fulfill their purpose for existence and create an iron shield against elements that try to do us harm. In the light of the Jewish people’s perfect relationship with God, enemy ideologies cease to exist, and the physical beings that embodied such ideologies hang on the gallows they themselves built.
Rabbi Hirsch writes, “The last page of this war (against Amalek) will not be closed until the sword of Amalek shatters against a mightier sword, before a force depending solely on faithful obedience to God’s law of morality.” It has been and always will be within the power of the Jewish people to fulfill all of God's mitzvot. It is also within our reach to blot out Amalek’s name. Through intensifying our connection to the Almighty and begging for His mercy, we can defeat our enemies, for all the suicide bombers, tanks, airplanes, and nuclear bombs pale in comparison with the Almighty's power. May God break and humble our enemies and uplift His beloved ones like he did in the days of Mordechai and Esther.   

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