Israel and Amalek
Judaism is about making distinctions. Distinctions between sacred and secular, between light and dark, between Jews and non-Jews, between male and female, between good and evil. We don't blur distinctions; we shine a spotlight on them and learn from them. And in a system like that, polar opposites can teach the most.
Israel and Amalek are polar opposites. The concepts of Israel and Amalek, at any rate. Not all Jews live up to the concept of Israel, and not all Amalekites (at least in principle) are exemplars of the Amalekite worldview.
On Shabbat Zachor, we read Deuteronomy 25:17-19 as an extra reading:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you left Egypt. How they happened upon you on the way, how having no fear of God, they cut off the stragglers among you while you were tired and weary. And it will be when Hashem your God has given you respite from all your enemies all around, in the land which Hashem your God gives to you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall erase the name of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget.The rabbis talk about the statement "How they happened upon you." The Hebrew is asher korcha. The verb kor can mean "happen", and it can mean "cold". The rabbis explain that when we left Egypt, we were golden. The plagues didn't take place in Egypt alone, but the world over. And people were terrified. At that point, we could have walked into Canaan and seen nothing but the afterimages of the Canaanites as they booked out of there. If not for Amalek.
When Amalek attacked us, even though we beat them in battle, they demonstrated that we could be attacked. They destroyed the mystique. They turned our miraculous escape from Egypt into something prosaic. The rabbis say that the word kor is used here because they "cooled us down". They turned us from a burning star that no one would have dared touch into just another tribe of people. A huge one, granted, but killable like anyone else.
The truth is, both meanings of the word kor are correct in this case. Because that's the entire idea of happenstance. Amalek made it look as though the Exodus "just happened." No big deal.
In Parashat Bechukotai (the last parasha of Leviticus), Hashem tells us what will happen if we blow Him and His mitzvot off. And He uses an unusual term in doing so. In Leviticus 26:21, after having warned us of the bad things that would happen to us if we didn't keep Hashem's Torah, He goes on to say:
And if you walk with Me in keri, and don't feel like obeying Me, I will increase the punishment for your sins sevenfold.What is keri? Some translations render it as "indifference". Others as "happenstance". Still others as "contrariness" (though I can't imagine where that came from). It is the same word as the kor in asher korcha. It is the act of making something important and fundamental into something that "just happened." As Bechukotai continues, Hashem keeps upping the ante. "If you continue acting as though all of this is just happenstance, then I will let the fires of happenstance take you." Over and over. And Hashem certainly had us pegged correctly. Because that is our biggest weakness: Refusing to see Hashem's Hand in the events that we experience. Being "realistic" when it's just not appropriate.
We were born--as a nation--in the midst of miracles. We have survived--as a nation--through more miracles. To be "realistic" in the way that some people want is anything but. It is a denial of reality, and a denial of Hashem. And Hashem told us that if He allows bad things to happen to us and we refuse to see His Hand in it, it would get worse, and worse, and worse, until eventually we woke up to what was happening, and returned to Him.
In the story of Esther, Haman is an Amalekite. But that's the smallest part of why Purim is about the eternal conflict between the opposing concepts of Israel and Amalek. The scroll of Esther does not contain Hashem's Name. Not even once. The entire story can be read as though it was nothing more than politics. Mordechai and Esther maneuvered within the system, and managed to save the Jews from annihilation. Luck and political savvy saved us. It's possible to read the story that way, but, as the saying goes, that would be wrong.
The Purim story is all about seeing Hashem even in the most prosaic of experiences. That is the concept of Israel. The concept of Amalek, by way of extreme contrast, is about seeing happenstance in the most miraculous of occurances. The rabbis tell us that after the Flood in the days of Noah, some people worked out that the Flood had happened 1656 years after Creation. They came up with a brilliant theory. "The world floods," they suggested, "every 1656 years. It's a natural phenomenon, and all we need to do is come up with a way to protect ourselves every millenium and a half." The nation of Amalek hadn't come into being yet, but the concept of Amalek was already going strong.
Israel looks at Esther being in the right place at the right time, and sees a miracle. Amalek looks at the tiny State of Israel defeating enormous Arab armies in six days and sees military skill. Israel sees the sacred even in the profane. Amalek sees the profane even in the sacred.
And that's why Purim will always be with us. Because it isn't about Mordechai and Esther and Ahasuerus and Haman. It's about the single most important concept in all of Judaism. Knowing Hashem. Seeing Hashem through His influence in the world. Recognizing that there's more to reality than what you can hold in the palm of your hand.
Today, Orthodox Jews are divided into those with an Israelite outlook and those with an Amalekite outlook. And this is the point where some readers are going to get really annoyed. Orthodox Jews get up in the morning and pray to Hashem. And in the prayers, we say these words from Psalms 20:8-9:
These [come] with chariots, and these [come] with horses, but we make mention of the Name of Hashem our God. These bend and fall, but we rise up and are encouraged.How many people take these words to heart when they say them? How many take them seriously in a practical sense? And how many walk out saying, "We have to get America to help Israel, because Israel cannot stand alone." They can be the most ritually observant and stringent of Jews, but when they insist on "practicality" of that sort, they are adopting the Amalekite worldview.
Is it easy to set practical considerations aside? Not at all. But it is the very reason for our existence. It is the core concept of Torah and Judaism, and it is the single most important thing for Jews to understand today.