The Eradication of Amalek

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
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In this week’s parshah, we find the commandment to eradicate any remnant or vestige of Amalek, as the verse states:

תמחה את זכר עמלק מתחת השמים לא תשכח

Eradicate the vestige of Amalek from beneath the Heavens.  Do not forget.[1]

When Sennacherib, King of Assyria, conquered the Middle East, he transferred the people of one country to another, mixing the different ethnic groups together in order to prevent revolt.[2]  As such, we cannot know from the physical location of any nation whether they are indeed the descendants of the original nation of that region.  Those who now inhabit Egypt, Moab and Ammon are not the original Egyptians, Moabites and Ammonites whom we are forbidden to marry, even if they convert.[3]  So, too, are those who now inhabit the land of Amalek no longer the original Amalekites whom we are forbidden to destroy.  Those nations have been scattered across the world and lost by assimilation.  Therefore, the mitzva to actually kill Amalekites can no longer be practiced.

Nonetheless, we have a tradition from the Baal Shem Tov that every mitzva is eternally relevant to every Jew in every situation.  For example, although we no longer have a Beis HaMikdash, the mitzvos concerning the sacrifices can still be performed by studying the corresponding Torah portions, as we learn from the verse, ונשלמה פרים שפתינו - “And we shall fulfill our cow offerings with the words of our lips.”[4]  How then can the mitzva to eradicate Amalek be fulfilled in today’s day and age?

Although the biological heirs of Amalek are unknown to us, their spiritual vestige – the wicked ideologies they espoused and corrupt character traits they embodied – can be found in all places and times, even in the innermost recesses of our own hearts.  By purifying ourselves, we purify the world around us and thereby eradicate the evil personified by the most wicked of all nations, Amalek.

The primary battlefront in the eternal war against Amalek is the Beis Midrash, where we hold the high ground and can rest assured of our victory in the merit of the our Torah study.  The Gemara occasionally offers acronyms as mnemonic devices by which to remember a series of teachings (since the Oral Tradition of Torah study is really meant to be committed to memory).  In Maseches Bava Basra, the word Amalek (עמלק) is used as an acronym for a series of teachings concerning the testimony in court of a cosigner (ערב), lender (מלוה), purchaser (לוקח) and loan-agent (קבלן).  It is fascinating that the despised name of the most wicked nation in history, whose very memory must be wiped from the face of the earth, is eternalized in holy text of the Gemara.  What is the meaning of this?  Why must Torah scholars throughout the generations stumble across this detestable anathema in their pursuit of seemingly totally unrelated studies?

Rav Yaakov Emden, zt”l, makes note of this point and explains that in the possuk cited above, תמחה את זכר עמלק מתחת השמים לא תשכח – “Eradicate the vestige of Amalek from beneath the Heavens.  Do not forget,” a cantorial note signifies a pause between the words לא (do not) and תשכח (forget).  Accordingly, depending on how the verse is read, it can either be a warning never to forget our obligation to eradicate Amalek or a license to overlook this obligation when necessary, such as providing a mnemonic device to remember our teachings.  By incorporating the name of Amalek into our Torah studies, we sap them of the holy sparks invested within them (since holiness rests in all aspects of Hashem’s creation, from the most noble to the most evil).  The Gemara advises a person who is accosted by his yetzer hara to “drag it into the Beis Midrash,” such that the merit of Torah study may help him conquer it.[5]  Similarly, by dragging the name of Amalek into the Beis Midrash and using it as an aid to our Torah study, we are given the strength to conquer this most evil aspect of creation.

On a practical level, this serves as a lessen to us in our vigil against the spiritual heirs of Amalek: the prowling jackals of depravity and corruption who far too often venture into the homes and hearts of Israel to stalk their prey.  Only in the Beis Midrash can we find the strength to overcome them.  Only in the merit of Torah study can we find the holy fortitude to continue our struggle against them, generation after generation.  The first assault of Amalek came on the heels of our laxity in Torah study, as the verse states,  ויבא עמלק וילחם עם ישראל ברפידים –  “Amalek came and waged war with Israel in Refidim.”[6]  Our Sages explain that the location Refidim hints to the fact that Bnei Yisrael had slackened their commitment (rafu yadeihem) to Torah and mitzvos and were consequently made vulnerable to Amalek’s attack.[7]  By renewing our commitment to Torah and mitzvos, we defeat our historic nemesis, Amalek.

With this we can understand a remarkable insight of our Sages into one of the concluding verses of the Megillah in which Mordechai is praised as being “favored by most of his brethren.”[8]  Our Sages explain that he was favored by most, but not all, of Bnei Yisrael.  His peers, the members of the Sanhedrin, distanced themselves from his company when he began to curtail his Torah study and apply himself to affairs of state in his new position as viceroy to Achashveirosh.[9]

What fault could the Sages have possibly seen in Mordechai after he used his influence to rescue the entire Jewish nation, destroy our hated enemies, and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity which eventually led to the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash?  Piku’ach nefesh, the rescue of life, supersedes all other mitzvos.  Would they have preferred to see Mordechai ignore Haman’s nefarious designs and concentrate solely on his Torah study?

The Sages understood that the war against Amalek is fought simultaneously on two different planes: the physical and the spiritual.  Not with sword and spear can we vanquish our foes, but with Torah study and prayer.  As a physical representation and, too, a natural consequence of our stalwart commitment to Torah, our enemies will fall before us.  Mordechai’s peers distanced themselves from him, since they realized that although he stood at the forefront of the physical battle against Amalek, the greater, more decisive battle is waged in the Beis Midrash, where no political manipulation or military strategy is of the slightest consequence.

"והיה כאשר ירים משה ידו וגבר ישראל וכאשר יניח ידו וגבר עמלק" – וכי ידיו של משה עושות מלחמה או שוברות מלחמה?  אלא לומר לך כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלה ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מתגברים ואם לאו היו נופלים.

“And it was when Moshe would raise his hands, Israel would succeed, but when he would lower his hands, Amalek would succeed.”  Did Moshe’s hands, therefore, win or lose the war?  Rather, when Israel raised their eyes up and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would win, but if not, they would fall.[10]

The same is true in our own inner war against Amalek, against the base character traits and false ideologies with which we all must struggle.  We raise our eyes to our Father in Heaven, that He may help us return in sincere and perfect teshuvah before Him and inscribe us all in the Book of Life for a healthy, peaceful and blessed new year.


[1] Devarim 25:17

[2] Yadayim 4:4

[3] Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 5:4

[4] Hosheia 14:3.  See Midrash Tanchuma: Acharei Mos 16; Rashi, Yoma 36b; Mishnah Berurah 621 s.k. 13

[5] Sukka 52b

[6] Shemos 17:8

[7] Yalkut Shimoni 261

[8] Esther 10:3

[9] Megillah 16b

[10] Rosh Hashana 29a