Hanging Haman: The Commandment to Wipe Out Amalek
On the Shabbat before Purim, generally known as Shabbat Parashat Zachor, Jews across the world gather in their synagogues to hear Deuteronomy 25:17-19 read at the end of Torah reading:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt. That they encountered you on the way, and struck the hindmost, all that were weak at the rear; and they did not fear G-d. Therefore it will be, when the Eternal, your G-d, gives you relief from all your enemies, all around, in the land that the Eternal, your G-d, is giving to you as an inheritance to possess it, then you shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek
from beneath the heavens; you must not forget.
What must the Children of Israel remember? Deuteronomy 25:17 refers to an incident in Exodus 17:8-16, just after the Children of Israel crossed the Reed/Red Sea. On their third day out of Egypt, as they traveled in the wilderness, the army of Amalek swooped down from behind them, attacking the old and the weak who were straggling at the rear. The commandment to remember Amalek, however, is more than just remembering that Amalek attacked the Jews in the wilderness, it is remembering that they are the very antithesis of Israel.
Parashat Zachor is read on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman is a direct descendant of Amalek. Like his forefathers, Haman was the archenemy of the Jews. He wanted to entirely wipe out the Jewish nation. Neither begging, bribery nor conversion would have changed Haman’s mind because he recognized that the Jewish nation itself represented a spiritual force which he abhorred.
To understand Haman’s motives and the commandment of Zachor, it is necessary to first learn the history of Amalek:
Esav’s Successor – Initially, Amalek was an actual person who later became the leader of a clan, which became a nation of the same name. Amalek was a grandson of Jacob’s brother Esav.
In Genesis 36:12, the Torah introduces Amalek:
Now Timna was concubine to Elifaz, son of Esav, and she bore Amalek to Elifaz.
We later learn (Genesis 36:22) that Timna was the sister of Lotan who was a chieftain of the land of Seir where Esav went to live. Thus we see that Amalek was the scion of two powerful families, yet he was only a concubine’s son.
The Sages tell us that Amalek was raised in the tents of Esav, constantly hearing his grandfather bemoan his fate and how Esav’s brother, Jacob, had stolen his birthright (See Genesis 25).
Amalek absorbed Esav’s hatred of the children of Jacob, thus it became the nature of the nation of Amalek to hate the Jews.
Amalek versus the Children of Israel –
Exodus 17:8-16 – As noted above, three days after the crossing of the Reed/Red Sea, the Amalekites traveled many miles in order to attack the Jewish people from behind, attacking the weak and the stragglers. The Jewish people miraculously defeated the Amalekites in a one day war. This battle was significant because it showed the true nature of the Amalekites. G-d had just performed miracle after miracle, from the 10 plagues to the splitting of the sea, and not a single nation dared to attack Israel except Amalek. Lest one believe that Amalek was courageous, it should be noted that they did not risk a frontal attack.
Every nation has certain outstanding character traits. Amalek is known for its all consuming love of self and reliance on violence to prove its superiority.
The Sages teach that Amalek never denied the existence of G-d or G-d’s special relationship with the Jewish people. The Amalekites just didn’t care. In fact, their very understanding of G-d and His relationship with the Israelites was precisely why they felt the need to attack–Amalek clearly resented the existence of an opposing authority.
Amalek saw that no other nation dared to attack the Children of Israel and that the Jews had demonstrated that there can be power in peace. This went against the entire mind-set of the Amalekites, who preached and practiced the ideology that Ã¢â‚¬Ëœmight makes right.”
Amalek versus the Kingdom of Israel: Samuel I, Chapter 15
Not long after the unified Kingdom of Israel was formed under the reign of King Saul, the king, at the direction of the prophet Samuel, gathered his troops to fulfill the Biblical commandment to wipe out Amalek.
King Saul was a mighty warrior and was victorious over Amalek, virtually destroying the nation. But, “he took Agag, the king of Amalek alive…and Saul and the people had pity on Agag the king of Amalek,” and on the Amalekite flocks and cattle (Samuel I 15:8-9).
By having mercy on Agag, Saul went against the specific directive of
G-d, who was, needless to say, less than pleased.
The prophet Samuel rose early the very next morning, came to Saul and informed him that G-d was angered by his taking Amalekite sheep and cattle for spoils and for not fulfilling the commandment to utterly destroy Amalek.
After a brief and futile denial by Saul, the king admitted his transgression and Samuel ordered Agag brought to him. The prophet proceeded to kill the king of Amalek and concluded the matter.
The damage, however, was already done. In that one night, our sages teach us, Agag had relations with a maidservant (or his wife) who later, gave birth to a son. Thus, over a thousand years later the Jews were faced with mortal danger from Haman the Agagite.
It is interesting to note that just as Haman is a direct descendant of Agag, both Mordechai and Esther are descendants of Saul.
Why Amalek and Israel are in opposition, and how this relates to Haman:
The Talmud tells us that the wording in Deuteronomy 25:18, “asher kar’cha ba’derech” literally means that Amalek “happened” upon the Jews. This, the rabbis explain, is an explanation of the personality of Amalek: Amalek represents the philosophy of chance, of the haphazard dictates of “fate” and “destiny,” which oppose the Jewish philosophy of Divine control. Amalek philosophy negates the concept that there is a purpose to humanity or to creation itself–again the antithesis of Jewish philosophy.
The difference in philosophy between Amalek and Israel can be seen all the way back to the time of the nations’ forefathers, Esav and Jacob.
Esav was a hunter, he lived his life for the thrill of the game, the risk of danger and for moment-to-moment pleasure. Life had no particular purpose in Esav’s mind, which is demonstrated in his desire for Jacob’s lentils and his preparedness to sell his birthright. Esav easily parts with his birthright as first born (which would have given him the rights to the Land of Israel) merely because he was hungry at that very moment. When he gave the birthright away, he mocked Jacob’s desire for it by asking “What is the birthright to me?” (Genesis 25:27-34).
Jacob, on the other hand, planned for the future. He studied and tried to find the best way to serve G-d. For this reason, G-d communicated with him and made him the father of the twelve tribes, the future Nation of Israel.
Amalek’s attack on the Jews after they crossed the Red(Reed) Sea was motivated by this hatred of the Israelite belief in the Divine hand of G-d. Certainly Amalek, and the entire world, had heard of the great plagues that had struck Egypt, but they found reasons to scoff at these phenomenal events. While no other nation would dare attack the Jews with the cloud of G-d surrounding them, Amalek needed to attack in order to show that “might makes right” was still the natural order of the world. While they did not win in their battle with Israel, they certainly diminished the fear of the other nations for the Jewish people. The Midrash describes it as if the Amalekites cooled a hot bath, scorching themselves, but encouraging others to enter.
Haman’s attempt to destroy the Jewish people is a direct result of the historical and philosophical battles of Amalek and Israel. As a descendent of Agag, King of Amalek, Haman is strikingly aware of the Jewish victories over Amalek, both in the wilderness and in the time of King Saul, as definitively recorded in Jewish texts. His desire to wipe out the Jews as a nation was a direct result of this historical battle between nations.
Haman’s conflict with Mordechai, however, was based on the philosophical differences of the two nations. Just as in the days in the wilderness, Mordechai (the Jews) stood as a symbol of Jewish strength and as a symbol of the Divine hand active in the world. As Haman himself points out to King Achashverosh, no other nation was so scattered, yet remained unified. And Mordechai defied Haman’s assertions of might makes right by refusing to bow to him just because he was Prime Minister. While the king of the land may have commanded all to bow to Haman, the King of the Universe commanded all to bow to no one but Him. Throughout the Megillah there is an underlying struggle of Haman trying to show that he controls his own destiny, and the destiny of the empire, only to be foiled by the subtle plans of G-d.
Fighting Amalek today
While we do not know who the descendants of Amalek are today, the sages teach that a part of Amalek can also be found in each of us–our natural inclination to do wrong. Every person must constantly fight the Amalek in his/herself which tends to rationalize their actions: For example, lashon harah, speaking evil or gossiping, can destroy another person, yet we constantly justify our gossiping by saying that our juicy tidbit must already be common knowledge or it is important that the other person know that Suzie was out with Joey. On a more personal level, for the modern day Jew, fighting Amalek may mean battling our own inclinations and remembering that G-d is always there and surely runs the world for our benefit.