Peering Behind the Mask: Understanding the Battle Against Amalek

By Shmuel Reichman


One day, Daniel decides to go on a nature hike. He has been overwhelmed with work lately and just needs some time to recharge. Without telling anyone where he’s going, he heads off into the mountains. He’s enjoying the view and his peaceful hike, when suddenly, he slips and tumbles off the edge of a cliff. As he plunges downwards, he somehow manages to grasp onto a branch jutting out from the side of the mountain. He clings on to this branch for dear life, trying not to look down at the ravine below.

A million thoughts go running through Daniel’s head, but one thought in particular keeps reemerging to the forefront of his consciousness. “Nobody knows I’m here. I’m alone. I’m going to die.” He begins to take stock of his life, thinking about the good times he’s had and what he has managed to accomplish in his short existence. He thinks about his family, and how much they are going to miss him. Just then, a rope soars past his head, hanging directly in front of him. After a moment’s shock, he grabs on to the rope and holds on for dear life as someone on the other end begins to pull him up over the cliff edge.

When Daniel reaches the top, he immediately asks the man. “How did you know that I fell over the edge and needed rescuing?” The man stares at him blankly and says, “I didn’t. This morning, I randomly decided that today would be a great day to practice throwing ropes down cliff faces.

There are two reactions that Daniel can have. He can recognize the miracle of what has just happened, thanking Hashem for sending him salvation when it seemed so unlikely. Or, he can laugh at the coincidence of both his falling and this man practicing rope throwing at the exact same time, thankful that he happened to get lucky this time. This decision is one that we actually face in every moment and aspect of life, and it is a theme connected to this week’s parsha and the upcoming holiday of Purim. 

A Small Alef and the Battle Against Amalek

We will begin with two questions before delving into this topic. A striking feature of Parshas Vayikra is its very first word. The first word of the entire sefer, “Vayikra” is written with a small aleph. What is the meaning of this small aleph? This Shabbos, we will be reading both Parashas Vayikra and Parshas Zachor, our yearly mitzvah to remember Amalek’s attempt to destroy us. What is the connection between Amalek and Vayikra’s small aleph?

To address these questions, we must first understand the nature of Amalek. Amalek attacked the Jewish people as they were on the way to receive the Torah. What is most striking about this attack is the timing. With the ten makkos, the Jews just defeated the Egyptians, a nation considered to be the ultimate power in the world. Hashem had also just split the sea for the Jewish People, an act that had worldwide reverberations. The Jews were viewed as invincible, untouchable. And exactly then, Amalek chose to attack the Jewish people, undertaking a practically suicidal battle with zero provocation. What were their motives in undertaking such a mission? This question can be extended to the Purim story as well. Haman, suddenly promoted to second in command, makes it his mission to wipe out the entire Jewish people. As a descendent of Amalek, he is clearly continuing their legacy of Jewish obliteration. What is the reason for Haman’s hatred of the Jews and singular desire to wipe them out? Why is this the spiritual legacy of Amalek? In order to answer these questions, we must look at three fundamental principles of Jewish belief.

Three Fundamental Principles

The first is that Hashem is the creator of the world. He is the source of time, space, and our entire reality. The second is that Hashem has a relationship with this physical world. This is the concept of hashgacha, that Hashem oversees and controls the events of this world. The third principle is that there is a purpose to this world and our lives within it. There is not a single thing that is random, rather each and every occurrence and interaction is part of an infinitely beautiful grand plan, a cosmic symphony, a masterpiece.

Amalek’s entire existence is devoted towards destroying the second and third of these principles. Amalek claims that although Hashem may exist, he has absolutely nothing to do with us or our world. Our lives are therefore meaningless and this world is utterly devoid of spirituality. This approach is summed up in the pasuk describing Amalek’s attack on the Jewish people. As we read in Parshat Zachor, we must remember what Amalek did to us, “ashar korcha baderech” – how they “happened” upon us while we were traveling (Devarim 25:18). The word korcha is a strange one, and Rashi therefore quotes three interpretations, each fundamental and significant.

Randomness and Happenstance

The first interpretation of the word “korcha” is based on its connection to the word “karah”- happenstance. This represents Amalek’s claim that everything in this world is random and meaningless. There is no hashgacha, no Divine providence. When things happen to you, whether bad or good, there is no deeper meaning or significance behind it. Amalek was projecting that they just “happened” to be here with swords in hand, ready for battle, they simply “chanced” upon the Jewish People as they were on the way. 

This is the exact approach that Haman took when plotting to kill the Jews. He did not rationally calculate a date on which to kill the Jews, rather he specifically chose one through a pur, a lottery. A lottery represents randomness and chance. Haman let the luck of the draw determine when he would kill the Jews, an act of devotion to “karah” – happenstance. [The gematria, numerical value, of Amalek is safek- doubt. Amalek represents doubt and uncertainty, randomness and chaos.]

Keri: Spiritual Marriage

The second interpretation offered by Rashi connects “korcha” to “keri”, a concept linked to marital impurity. Judaism approaches marriage as a mitzvah, whereby the relationship between husband and wife holds incredible potential for spirituality. The Ramban explains that the relationship between man and wife can ideally reflect the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People. It is a relationship of spiritual and existential oneness, where potential is actualized and developed.

Amalek, however, claims that marriage is no more than animalistic mating, a relationship that will never contain meaning or spirituality. Perhaps the reason for this is connected to Amalek’s very conception. Amalek was the result of Eliphaz’s relationship with his concubine, Timnah (Bereishit 36:12). Unlike Jewish marriage, which is rooted in a devoted and loving commitment, a concubine is a purely physical relationship, lacking the spiritual components of true marriage. The very nature of Amalek’s creation became their national ethos. Amalek has divorced the physical from the spiritual, viewing the physical as fallen and empty, detached from any higher spiritual source. The physical urges of man are the ultimate motivation in this world, as there is nothing deeper to the world or human interaction than its physical facade.

Kor: Cooling Off the Flame

Rashi’s third explanation of the word “korcha” is based on a midrash that relates the word to “kor”- cold. The midrash gives the mashal of a boiling hot bath of water that nobody dares jump into. Along comes one man and jumps into the scalding water, burning himself completely in the process. He may have harmed himself, but he has now cooled the water enough for others to jump into. This is what Amalek did as the Jewish people were traveling from Egypt. After Hashem performed the ten makkos, the plagues, and took the Jewish People out of Egypt, the nations of the world were fully ready to accept both Hashem and His Torah. They began flocking towards Har Sinai, on a mission to join the Jewish people in accepting the Torah. [As the Ramchal explains at the end of Derech Hashem, until the Torah was given, any nation could have joined Klal Yisrael.] The Jewish people were at the height of their success, about to receive the Torah, and the other nations were ready to accept the Torah along with them. At this point, Amalek saw it necessary to attack the Jewish People, undertaking a nearly suicidal mission but showing the other nations that the Jews were not as completely invincible as they seemed. They “jumped into the scalding bath” – attacked the Jewish people, and “cooled the waters”- showed the other nations that the Jewish People were vulnerable to attack. Why did Amalek do this? Why were they willing to burn themselves simply to weaken the Jewish People? 

To review what we have said until now, Amalek rejects both Hashem’s control of this world and the ability for physical man to uplift himself to spirituality. Torah is the epitome and paradigm of both of these principles. It is based on the principle of Hashem’s connection with this world, and it is the means for elevating ourselves and all of physicality to a higher purpose. Amalek stands directly opposed to this, and when they saw not just the Jewish People, but the entire world, ready to adopt this way of life, they had no choice but to attack. Amalek’s entire existence is predicated on a lack of connection between Hashem and this world, therefore a complete acceptance of that principle by all the nations of the world would mean Amalek’s ceasing to exist. Amalek attacked the Jewish People with the goal of preventing Matan Torah, with the goal of preventing the world from accepting Hashem’s Torah and the truth that lies within it. And although Amalek was sorely beaten, with only a few survivors, they still had managed to kill a few Jewish warriors. They showed that the Jews were not invincible, “cooling” down the excitement of all the nations of the world and paralyzing their readiness to accept Torah. Amalek Won. Physically, they lost, but in a deeper way, they won! The nations of the world walked away.

The Small Alef

We can now give meaning to the small aleph in Vayikra and why we read it before Purim. When you look at the word Vayikra, with its tiny aleph, at first you only see the word karah – happenstance. This is the word of Amalek – a God-less reality, void of spirituality and meaning. Only when you focus, look closer, and peer beneath the surface do you see the aleph. Aleph, the first letter, is the most spiritual of all the letters. It represents oneness and the spiritual root of reality. Hashem is echad, one, and our goal in this world is to see the spiritual oneness inherent within every event and object in this world. Amalek seeks to hide the truth, disconnect us from our source, and strip all meaning from this life. Only when we see past the surface, when we recognize the aleph in Vayikra, and trace everything that happens in this world back to Hashem- our spiritual source- will we ultimately defeat Amalek and all that they stand for.



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