D’Var Torah

Zachor-Vayikra, 5784, (3/23/2024)

Rabbi Micah Friedman

     Today, we read a mitzvah that has long been regarded as very important. 

     Yet, it is also a Paradoxical Mitzvah. Perhaps that’s why it’s the mitzvah we do on Purim. Already in the verses of the Torah, there is something seemingly self-contradictory about our instructions:

  • Remember to erase a memory 
  • Don’t forget, that at a certain point in time, we should not hold on to the memory
  • Remember, not to remember

     This is Purim – Nahafokh Hu – It is turned upside. We quote this phrase from a verse in Chapter of Megillat Esther – which speaks to our near destruction as a justification for all kinds of shtick  – and we say nahafokh hu. 

     We also say in Pirkei Avos:

בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ

Ben Bag Bag said: Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein.

Pirkei Avot 5:22

     “Hafokh ba, v’hafokh ba”

  • It is through turning over and over – taking seriously what seems to be chaotic – being somehow both silly and serious – that we reveal the Torah

     So, though it is almost Purim, today we read a very serious topic: the war with Amalek.

     We are commanded in Devarim to wage a total war on a people called Amalek 

  • They committed an atrocity against us – attacking when we were weak and vulnerable with no regard for women and children 
  • So the Torah tells us to erase their memory once we are established in the land of Israel

     However, we fail to do so. King Shaul – the first Israelite king – violates the Divine command. When he defeats the Amalekites and their King Agag in war, he takes their flocks as spoils of war and he lets their king go free. 

     It is from this king – king Agag – that the Megillah tells us Haman is descended. 

  • When we first meet Haman, in the very first verse of Chapter three of the Megillah, he is called: Haman ben Hamdata HaAgagi
  • The final time we read Haman’s name, we repeat again Haman ben Hamdata HaAgagi and add Tzorer Kol haYehudim 
    • Oppressor of all the Jews

     The Megillah clearly wants us to hear in Haman’s name an echo of King Agag of the Amalekites and the cruel pressure and violence in which Amalek engaged against us on the shore of the sea of reeds.

     One way of understanding this literary reference in the Megillah – and therefore the entire threat posed by Haman in the Megillah –  is that this a punishment of the people of Israel for insisting on appointing a king and for that king’s demonstration of mercy for a fellow king. Perhaps, Haman the Agagite’s persuasion of King Achashverosh is what we get for sparing a wicked king’s life while killing his subjects in war. That king’s descendant gains power and influence over a future king and nearly destroys all of the Jews. 

     In the days of King Saul, we failed to fulfill the mitzvah of blotting out the memory of Amalek, so, maybe, the conclusion of the Megillah reflects our attempt to finish what he started: to destroy all of the people of Amalek. 

     This is one way in which our tradition has read the darkest part of Purim – the bloody Jewish uprising in Ch. 9 of the Megillah in which we slay hundreds of our enemies. Maybe, in the days of Mordechai and Esther, we completed the mitzvah of wiping out the memory of Amalek. 

     Except, there is one major, glaring shortcoming to this understanding. Despite the more than 8000 people the Jews killed across the Persian empire stretching from India to Ethiopia, we continue to remember Amalek.  We find ourselves continuing to “remember to blot out the memory of Amalek.”

     We continue to read parshat Zakhor twice a year – to read the Megillah each year – to boo when we hear the name of Haman (as a way of blotting out the memory of Amalek.) But, we also make sure that we do not boo over the name of Haman because it is important that we hear the “whole megillah” – that we get the whole story of this ancient, ongoing struggle with Amalek. 

     How should we understand the apparently paradoxical reality in which we have not yet reached the point in time where we can truly “blot out the memory of Amalek?”

     One response, one path, which I would warn us away from is to associate anyone who seems to be an enemy today with Amalek. We have done this in history – especially in recent generations when some have problematically declared Palestinians – or some subset of them – to be Amalek – an incarnation of evil which can only be destroyed through utterly wiping away their memory. 

     I hope that the danger of this way of thinking is apparent. It could easily lead us to see ourselves as required to engage in sanctified mass violence – wiping out an entire people, men, women and children. For some years now, there are voices within the people of Israel who have been promoting this understanding of Amalek and current day conflict through their sermons and political statements. So, every year, and especially this year, I find it important to challenge this understanding; to say that for two thousand years, since the Mishnah, our sages, of blessed memory, have taught that we no longer have the capacity to identify the descendents of Amalek. Therefore, there are no people today about whom the mitzvah to engage in the literal war of Amalek applies. 

     Yet, we continue to read the passage of Zakhor. So, how should we understand the mitzvah of the war on Amalek? 

     In sharp contrast to the strand of thinking about Amalek which calls for total war against an external enemy, for hundreds of years of rabbinic sermonizing – which predates but spread through Hassidus , there has been an overwhelming focus on the war with Amalek within ourselves. 

     The war with Amalek is an inner struggle – it is a struggle not to allow ourselves to become Amalek – a daily struggle which requires us to remember that is possible for us to sink down to the level of cruelty displayed by Amalek by disregarding the holy humanity of others – and that the purpose of the Torah is to lift us up from here – to transform our hearts away from Amalek every day. 

     Perhaps, this is another meaning of Nahafokh hu – turn him over – transform him – the voice within you which would call for holy total war – the instinct within you that would disregard the wellbeing of others and have you pursue your interests with blind self-centeredness. 

     I wonder if this is the reason why our tradition places such great emphasis on the mitzvot of giving Mishloach Manot – goodwill gifts of food to friends – and Matanot La’Evyonim – gifts to the poor – on Purim. Perhaps, our choice to cultivate generosity of spirit – loving concern for others – responsibility for the weak and vulnerable is a tikkun – a way of repairing – the Amalek within. 

     We do after all say that one should become mystified on Purim to the point where he cannot discern between “Cursed is Haman and Blessed is Mordechai.” Through acknowledging that the line between these two declarations is not as rigid as we’d like to believe, with G-d’s help, we can truly win our inner war, our personal struggle to act ethically – in a way that should be called Barukh – Blessed. 

     In the midrash, Our Sages teach that God says to the Jews, “If you do not remember Amalek, you will be sent back to the bondage of Egypt”  (Pesikta Rabati 12).

     I pray that we may appropriately remember Amalek and – rather than a return to our oppression – that we may experience the mood of redemption from the end of the Megillah that we invoke each week in Havdallah:

     LaYehudim Haitah Orah v’Simcha V’Sasson V’Ikar – For the Jews there was Light, Joy, Gladness, and all that is precious. 

     Ken T’hieh Lanu – So too may there be for us.