Translated with permission from Yeshivat Birkat Moshe – Maaleh Adumim
The mitzvah to destroy amalek
It is accepted to portray Amalek as the symbol of Anti-Semitism in humanity, and from here we understand what Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik said in the name of his father, that any nation who seeks to destroy the Jews is classified as Amalek. This explains why, when the Rambam emphasizes that the mitzvah of destroying the 7 nations was nullified when Sancheirev scattered all of the nations, he does not include the destruction of Amalek as being nullified. The mitzvah of destroying Amalek exists in all generations despite the fact that Sancheirev mixed up the nations. How can this be if all of the nations are interspersed? As we said, any nation who seeks to destroy the Jews is Amalek.
However, anyone who looks at Parshat Ki Tetze (Parshat Zachor) will argue that Amalek is not portrayed as one who seeks the destruction of the Jewish people:
זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק…והיה בהניח השם אלקיך לך מכל אויביך מסביב בארץ אשר השם נותן לך לרשתה תמחה את זכר עמלק מתחת השמים
We are only commanded to wipe out Amalek after we conquer the land. We only turn to fight Amalek after we have finished with the enemies surrounding us. This is how it was in the time of Shaul: “And (Shaul) fought against all of his enemies, against Moav and Ammon and Edom and Tzovah and the Plishtim. Only then was Shaul commanded to fight against Amalek.
Thus we say: The Torah differentiates between “our enemies around us” who endanger our physical existence, and who we therefore are commanded to fight first, and Amalek.
The seven nations who lived in the land are those who endangered our existence. Like the pasuk teaches, if we would leave them in the land, they would be our neighbors and would not give us peace.
Even more than this, there are those חכמים who who think that the mitzvah of wiping out Amalek is only applicable when there is a king. This is how the Ramban and the Ibn Ezra explain פשט on the words כי יד על כס יה מלחמה להשם בעמלק – when there is a מלך ישראל who is on the throne (כס=כסא) of Hashem, then we are commanded to fight against Amalek. If Amalek were a symbol for imminent danger, we would be instructed to destroy him immediately, and not to wait until a king was annointed!
The Basis for our conflict with Amalek
If so, who is Amalek, and what is the basis for the enmity between him and the Jews? Why were we commanded to destroy him? It seems that the main part of his sin is not his physical attack against Bnei Yisrael, but his attack on the honor of Bnei Yisrael. Amalek attacked the image of Bnei Yisrael when they left Mitzrayim. This means that Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim crowned with the glory of Hashem’s name, and blessed with miracles. “Hashem will fight for you, and you will remain silent.” Fear gripped the nations, as it says in אז ישיר:
שמעו עמים ירגזון אז נבהלו אלופי אדום אילי מואב יאחזמו רעד…תיפול עליהם אימתה ופחד…עד יעבור עמך השם
All of humanity was gripped by fear of the Jewish people; not fear of destruction, but fear which comes from awe of the nation of G-d, and admiration of Him. A nation of slaves which defeats the Egyptian superpower inspires fear and awe. Far away nations began to hear about this chosen nation which was traveling to its land in a Holy encampment. This was necessary in order to increase the spiritual influence of the Jews over the nations of the world. This was the atmosphere in which Bnei Yisrael would accept the Torah for themselves, and on behalf of humanity. Unlike Christianity and Islam which try to expand their influence by force, the Jewish nation wants to influence the world by being a “light to the nations”. The condition for this influence to be effective is to be respected by other nations. The great estimation and appreciation of the Jews was supposed to prevent great struggles when they conquered the land.
Then Amalek came and ruined everything. He destroyed the “legend of the Jews”. He damaged the our special image. He treated us as one of the nations, and, ignoring the spirituality which was upon us, he attacked and fought against us like those who are equal in stature. He cooled off the hot bath. While the bath was not really cooled, many other nations began to think it was.
From then, we have suffered. Without כבוד, our influence over humanity was diminished. Without כבוד, our unique status did not gain us admiration, but revulsion – well-known, but viewed with contempt. “נבזה וחדל אישים“. Amalek destroyed the “perfection of the world in the Kingdom of G-d” that the Jewish people were supposed to implement in their mission from G-d.
Therefore, only after Bnei Yisrael have respite from fighting their enemies, when the threat against their continuation is eradicated and their problems with faith are solved, he settles the score with Amalek, who shattered the image of the Jews in the eyes of humanity. Who is appointed to do this? The king of the Jews! Without a king, there is no chance to restore the כבוד of Bnei Yisrael to them. The spiritual honor (and influence) of the Jews is not based on their own merits, but on the country’s status among other nations. It is only when Bnei Yisrael have a king that they are ready to wage war against Amalek and restore their image among other nations.
amalek in galut
This characteristic of Amalek as a nation which comes to attack the כבוד of the Jews raises a question on the story of Amalek versus Bnei Yisrael in Megillat Esther. In the Megillah, Haman, the descendent of Agag, King of Amalek, threatens to destroy Bnei Yisrael. Haman is the prototypical anti-Semite, who seeks the eradication of the Jews from the world. His interest is not to affect the כבוד of Bnei Yisrael, but “להשמיד להרוג ולאבד את כל היהודים מנער ועד זקן טף ונשים ביום אחד” – to completely kill and wipe out all of the Jews, including children, seniors, babies and women in one day.
The explanation for this is that Megillat Esther is the Megillah of the exile, and in exile, the attack of Amalek against כבוד ישראל quickly evolved into the destruction of the Jews. In גלות the Jews are very vulnerable, and so every attempt to decrease their stature ends in an attempt to wipe them out. In גלות, Amalek chooses the “Final Solution” method of destroying כבוד ישראל. Why only destroy our כבוד if they can destroy everything?
This answer is satisfactory, but it is deficient. The premise that the enmity between Haman and Mordechai is not about honor is inaccurate. In Megillat Esther, it is obvious that the issue of honor is central to this hatred. The beginning of the story is after “the king made Haman the son of Hamdata HaAgagi great, and he elevated his status above the other officers of the king.” Haman was heaped with כבוד. Mordechai would not bow before him, because he was unwilling to relinquish the כבוד of the Jewish people. This is the beginning of the their enmity – the ups and downs of their כבוד. Haman himself says this when he is speaking about Mordechai’s refusal to bow:
“And Haman told them about his wealth and honor, and his many sons, and of how Achashveirosh had elevated him over all of the other officers of the king…’And all of this means nothing to me whenever I see Mordechai the Jew.'”
All of Haman’s honor loses its value because of Mordechai.
Later on, Haman sees himself as the person who “the king sees fit to honor”, but the one who has really earned this distinction is Mordechai. Haman is the one who must carry out the king’s orders to glorify Mordechai. Haman is pushed off to his house, completely disgraced. His face falls once again when Achashveirosh sees him at the foot of Esther’s bed. Haman’s כבוד has been lost, and he is completely disgraced.
A question of כבוד
The question of honor is not only the focus of the struggle between Mordechai and Haman – it is discussed throughout the Megillah. In fact, the entire Megillah deals with honor. “כבוד” is the inner thread which connects the entire Megillah. The concepts of כבוד and “יקר“, glory, are mentioned ten times.
The Megillah opens with the feast of Achashveirosh, which was intended to show “את עושר כבוד מלכותו ואת יקר תפארת גדולתו“. The king was stringent regarding his כבוד with the incident of Queen Vashti, and accepts the advice of his advisors who were worried that it would affect the כבוד that wives had for their husbands: “כי יצא דבר המלכה על כל הנשים להבזות בעליהן בעיניהן…וכדי בזיון וקצף”. The removal of Vashti was intended to strengthen the כבוד of the kingdom, “and all of the women would give honor to their husbands, from the greatest to the most common”. There is no life without honor!
What is the significance of the beginning of the Megillah? The כבוד of Achashveirosh’s kingdom is contrasted with the low stature of the Jews of Persia who had been exiled there from Yerushalayim. The כבוד of the Jews was trampled by Nevuchadnetzar, the king of Bavel, who exiled them from Israel. The description in the Megillah which leaves the greatest impression in the beginning of the Megillah is the palace of Achashveiroh, which is intended to emphasize by contrast our loss of national כבוד.
At the end of the Megillah, the Jews regain some of their כבוד when Esther is made queen. Mordechai also enjoys some honor: “ופרשת גדולת מרדכי אשר גדלו המלך”. From then on, for the Jews in Persia and Media, there was “אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר“. They did not only have honor; they also had יקר.
In every generation Amalek tries to destroy our כבוד: When we settled into ארץ ישראל Amalek threatened our national כבוד, and so we were commanded to fight against him specifically when we had a king; in other words, when we have a right to national honor. (The prophecy of חגי that “עוד אחת מעט היא…ומלאתי את הבית הזה כבוד” is describing the kingdom of the Chashmonaim, which has “a little bit of honor” as the establishment of a Jewish government in Israel.) In גלות, Amalek strives to wipe out the shreds of כבוד which we have remaining. However, the “King” – מלך מלכי המלכים, Hashem, does not allow him to succeed. “מלחמה להשם בעמלק” should be translated literally – Hashem Himself fights against Amalek, like the Rashbam and Ramban explain:
Rashbam: ” Hashem raised His Hand on His throne and swore that He would always be at war with Amalek.”
Ramban: “Hashem’s Hand is raised to swear on His throne that He would have eternal war and enmity against Amalek.”