This Shabbos is known as Parshat Zachor, the Shabbos of Remembrance, because we have a Biblical mitzvah to read about and remember the events that took place with Amalek. The verse in Deuteronomy chapter 25 verse 17 says, Zachor et asher asa lecha Amalek baderech b’tzeitchem miMitzrayim, “remember what Amalek did to you when you came on the way out of the land of Egypt.” The verses describe how Amalek attacked the Jewish People on and specifically targeted the most vulnerable among them. In essence, Parshat Zachor is about the first terrorist attack in history.
This special maftir is always read the Shabbos before Purim, because the archenemy in the events of Purim was the wicked Haman, who was a direct descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek, and continued the tradition of his forefathers by planning to wipe out the Jewish People. We have a Biblical commandment to remember this battle, this eternal battle between the forces of evil embodied by the nation of Amalek, and the forces of good.
Although the nation of Amalek does not exist as an identifiable, distinct nation anymore, the value system of Amalek certainly exists in the world and is constantly warring against our values. On Shabbos Zachor we remember that when Haman came to destroy the Jewish people he did so as an emissary of the values of Amalek.
What were Amalek’s values? The verses in Deuteronomy continue: Asher karcha baderech “they chanced upon you on the way,” and who did they attack? It says that Amalek targeted the necheshalim, which Rashi explains means the weakest people, the most vulnerable. They were exhausted and worn out from the journey, having just left the slavery of Egypt, and Amalek came to attack the stragglers, the most vulnerable and frail.
Why did Amalek attack the Jewish People, especially the weak among them? What was their reason? There was none. They just came to attack, for no reason. It was just brutality for its own sake, representing a value system that is completely evil. This is part of this philosophy of Amalek, of evil. Purim is about defeating this debased philosophy.
Purim is about understanding that the fight that we had with Haman was really a conflict of values. It was not just a physical attack, but was rooted in the values of Amalek. Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, one of our great rabbinic leaders of the 20th century, points out in his commentary Oznayim LaTorah that whenever the nation of Amalek is mentioned, the word baderech, “on the way” is emphasised. Amalek came to attack the Jewish People baderech, on the way, on their way to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. They attacked just before the Jewish People had arrived at Mount Sinai because they wanted to prevent the Jews from receiving the Torah, a code of law which values life and the belief in Hashem.
On Purim, the defeat of Haman and the forces of evil brings new light into the world. In fact, the Maharal of Prague, one of our great philosophers, called his book about Purim OhrChadash, a New Light. At first glance such a title does not seem to be relevant to a book about Purim. Yet this is what Purim is about: the new light that came into the world with the defeat of the forces of darkness and evil.
The light of Torah
One of the verses at the end of the Megillah which we read on Purim is a verse that we say every Saturday night at Havdalah as well: laYehudim hayta ora vesimcha vesasson vi’ykar, “to the Jews there was light and joy and rejoicing and glory.” The Talmud says that Ora, light, refers to the Torah. The Maharal explains that with the defeat of darkness a light came flooding into the world. A spiritual rejuvenation and spiritual revolution swept through the people, bringing them renewed inspiration to the extent that, says the Talmud, they reaccept the Torah.
When we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, we accepted the Torah because it was such a powerful experience that we could not walk away from it unchanged. It was so powerful and such an awe-inspiring experience to the extent that the Talmud says it was almost as if the mountain was above the heads of the people and they were forced to accept it. Not that they were coerced, explains the Maharal, but rather that the experience, the awesomeness of seeing G-d, was so powerful there was no way not to accept the Torah. During the time of Purim, we did not accept the Torah because we had to, we accepted the Torah because we wanted to. There was a renewed joy and inspiration with the light that came flooding into the world at the time of Purim, and it is this light of truth, of connection to G-d and of Torah values that brings us the greatest joy. This is how the Vilna Gaon explains why there is such joy on Purim: it is the joy of reaccepting the Torah, and the resulting rejuvenating light that comes into our lives.
The philosophy of Amalek is apathy to the G-d and the world around us
What is the root of this philosophy of darkness in the world, the philosophy that Amalek had when they attacked the Jewish people on the way to Mount Sinai, and that Haman had when he sought to commit genocide against the Jewish people?
The Chumash says asher karcha baderech, “they chanced upon you upon the way.” Rashi says there are two interpretations of this word karcha. One meaning of the world is chance or random. This philosophy of evil maintains that everything is a coincidence, that things are random, that Hashem has no plan in the world. But there is another meaning to this word karcha. It stems from the root kor, coldness. This evil philosophy represents a coldness toward the world. What was the coldness? Rashi, quoting the Medrash, says that when the Jews left Egypt no one was prepared to touch us. We had just witnessed the ten plagues, come out of Egypt, and witnessed the splitting of the sea. All these miracles were done specially for us, and there was an aura of invincibility around the Jewish People at the time. But once Amalek attacked, that sense of aura was broken. The nations of the world no longer had the same respect toward the Jewish People. This was the coldness they brought into the world: things are either revered or treated cynically.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner explains that the power of Amalek is that with their cynicism they demean things of importance in the world. In contrast, we value the concept of kedusha, of holiness. What does holiness mean? Holiness means regard things to be of special importance and consequently treating them with special care. For example, to value the sanctity of life is to believe that every human being has a Divine soul and is special, and as such has to be treated with care and reverence. A brutal murderer does not value human life, and consequently does not treat people with care and with reverence. Nor does he have the concept of believing in G-d and having a relationship with Him. Our philosophy of holiness maintains that everything we do and how we lead our lives is important to Hashem. There is no action, event or person who is not important. Holiness is the opposite of the cold cynicism of Amalek that sees nothing special in human life, that sees nothing meaningful in what we do.
It is so important, especially at these times of tragedy and devastation, that we not sink into apathy and coldness toward human suffering. We must be moved by these tragic events taking place in Japan because being a human being means being sensitive to what is going on around us. When we see these terrible murders we must be moved because we cannot be indifferent to human suffering. Indifference to the sanctity of human life, indifference to Hashem, indifference to His mitzvot and His Torah – that is Amalek’s philosophy of coldness and apathy.
Celebrating the fact that we celebrate
On Purim we actually celebrate the fact that we can celebrate. The joy and exuberance we feel on Purim counters the coldness of Amalek. Rav Hutner explains that the joy on Purim knows no bounds because we are actually celebrating joy itself and the fact that we can be passionate and excited about the Torah Hashem has given us and the values by which we live; that we can be excited and not cynical; that we can be warm and not cold; that we can be passionate about and not apathetic toward everything important in life. This is the ultimate victory and rejection of the values of Amalek, to say we hold dear certain values and they move us: our connection to Hashem, the sanctity of human life, and the sanctity of what we do with our lives, how we conduct ourselves, what we say and what we do. We are never in a state of indifference to these things. On Purim we celebrate the ultimate victory over Amalek and these terrible forces of evil.
At the conclusion of every Shabbos we say Havdalah, the prayer that celebrates the concept of holiness in the world, which says that certain times are special, people are special, things are special. Kedusha is to celebrate the specialness of life and that G-d has invested things with significance. Perhaps this is why in Havdalah we include this verse from the Megillah: laYehudim hayta Ora vesimcha vesasson viy’kar, “to the Jews there was light and joy and celebration and glory.” When we say Havdalah and celebrate holiness in the world, we remember that great victory of holiness over desecration; of light over darkness; of joy over apathy; and the victory of glory over the philosophy that says there is nothing glorious in human existence, that human existence is random, empty and meaningless and can be taken away at will. Y’kar, glory, teaches us that human existence can and should be elevated, beautiful and meaningful. That statement, layehudim hayta orah vesimcha vesasson viy’kar, “to the Jews there was light and joy and celebration and glory,” is the ultimate declaration of what it means to be a Jew, that we rejoice in the fact that we are moved by these very special values. When we read this verse on Purim and every Saturday night as well, we are celebrating the notion of holiness, joy, the glory of human existence and what it really means to be a Jew.
As we go into this Shabbos, we go in ready for Purim, ready to celebrate the values that we hold dear, and ready to proclaim to the world the importance of holiness and the values for which we have fought generation after generation. The sanctity of human life, the importance of a life filled with holiness and meaning, and the importance of a life of warmth and passion, not coldness and indifference.
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa and the founder of The Shabbat Project.