“Amalek, Purim and the Mitzvah of Getting Drunk”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, coincides with Parashat Zachor, the special reading from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, which is always read on the Shabbat preceding Purim. Since Haman was a direct descendant of Agag, King of Amalek, Parashat Zachor, in which G-d commands us to remember what Amalek did to us on the way when we left Egypt, is a timely and appropriate reading.

Our commentators point out that there’s a relationship between King Saul’s sparing of King Agag and the tragedy of Purim. As recorded in Samuel Chapter 15, the prophet Samuel had clearly instructed Saul not to have mercy on Agag, and to slay him after the victorious battle with Amalek. Yet, King Saul had mercy and spared Agag. According to our sages, during the brief interval between the sparing of Agag by Saul and the time that prophet Samuel killed King Agag, Agag impregnated a maidservant or his wife. Haman was a descendent of the child that was born. Our sages say (Eccl. Rabbah 7:36) that this particular act teaches that one who has mercy at a time when one should be cruel will ultimately be cruel at a time when one should be merciful. Because of the improper kindness that King Saul showed Agag, G-d declared that the monarchy be taken from Saul and given to David.

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, the late Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva of Jerusalem, in his Sichot Mussar, discourses cites three cases where righteous men were punished for seemingly minor offenses. One case he mentions is our case of King Saul who lost his monarchy. Reb Chaim also mentions the case of Moshe, who was punished and not allowed to enter the land of Israel for hitting the rock rather than speaking to it. And he cites the case of the meraglim, the scouts who were sent by Moshe to check out the land of Israel and returned with an evil report, resulting in the ban for the entire wilderness generation from entering the Land of Israel.

In order to understand these severe punishments, Reb Chaim cites a passage in the Talmud, Berachot 10a, which speaks of Chizkiyahu (Hezikiah) the King of Judah. Isaiah the prophet informs King Chizkiyahu that he is not only going to die, but will lose his portion in the world to come, as well. Chizkiyahu asks, “Why so severe a punishment?” Isaiah replies, “Because you did not fulfill the mitzvah of Pru Urvu, to bear children.” The King replies that he refrained from having children because he foresaw that he would bear children who would not be virtuous. To this the prophet Isaiah retorted, “Mai d’mif’k’det ee’bo’yay lach l’meh’eh’vad, u’mah d’nichah ka’may kud’shah b’rich hu, lee’eh’veed.” “Of what concern to you are the Divine secrets? Do as you are instructed, and G-d will do as he pleases.”

Rabbi Schmulevitz explains that from this Talmudic report concerning King Chizkiyahu we learn that the king’s sin was not not having children, since that transgression is not punishable by death. His sin lay principally in the use of his own logic to disobey the Divine command. Trying to use one’s own logic to qualify or bypass the Divine command is considered by our sages to be a breech in the relationship between the Creator and the creature, Master and servant.

Similarly, explains Reb Chaim, apparently Moshe Rabbeinu felt that hitting the rock would be a greater “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctification of G-d’s name). The sin of Moshe Rabbeinu, explains Reb Chaim, was not just disobeying G-d’s directive, but that he used his reasoning and logic to reinterpret it. The spies, too, went in to the land of Israel not to confirm G-d’s gift of the land, but to find the treasures that they had been promised. When they beheld the giants of the land, the spies decided to use their own logic and discourage the people from entering the land in order to protect the people of Israel from doing battle with the mighty inhabitants. Similarly, King Saul was not punished because he neglected to kill Agag, but more because he used his own rational powers to decide that taking Agag’s life would not be in keeping with the Divine emphasis on the sanctity of human life. This, says Reb Chaim constitutes rebellion against the Divine command.

In a truly novel approach, Reb Chaim suggests that the abuse of “rationalism” is the source for the Purim custom cited in the Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 695:2, “Cha’yav eh’nash liv’su’mei bi’f’ur’ya, ad d’lo ya’dah bein orur Haman l’varuch Mordechai,” that a person is required to become intoxicated on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai. Reason, says Reb Chaim, is used year round as a means to faith, emunah. However, once a year, on Purim, we strip away all traces of reason,”Ad d’lo ya’da”, to serve G-d with our faith alone.

That may also be why the Sh’lah (Shnei Luchot Ha’brit– R’ Yeshayah Hurwitz 1560-1630) quoting the Arizal stated that Purim is a day that can elevate a person more than Yom Kippur, and that is why the Day of Atonement is often referred to as Yom Kippurim, since Yom Kippur is but a day comparable to Purim.

May you be blessed.