Mechiyas Amalek: For Whom the Gragger Tolls 1
Rabbi Yisroel Meir Abrahamson
Among the highlights of the Megilla reading, is the custom to loudly bang when the name of Haman is mentioned. This custom derives from the mitzvah of Mechiyas Amalek, the biblical injunction to eradicate the nation of Amalek from which Haman came. In our times, this mitzvah may seem obsolete, and in practice it is definitely so. We are no longer aware of who Amalek is, and even if we were, while we are in golus, exile, we are forbidden to act upon it. How then, are we to fulfil this mitzvah? What practical application and spiritual benefit is there in our deepening our understanding of it? Let us take a closer look, and see if we can find meaning and inspiration that is relevant even, or particularly, in our own day and age.
From our first introduction to Amalek, we are presented with an enigma. The Bnei Yisroel had just left Mitzrayim to the accompaniment of great, unprecedented miracles. This demonstration is climaxed by the wondrous splitting of the Yam Suf. As the Torah explicitly states, "The nations heard and they trembled". Against this setting, emerges a nation with the arrogance to ignore all of these signs of Divine Favour, and the audacity to instead attack the beneficiary of all these miracles. How are we to understand such behavior?
"And Mordechai told Hasach all that had happened" (Esther 4:7). The word for 'happened' is 'karahu', which connotes happenstance or chance. Chazal explain that Mordechai was telling Hasach, "Go tell Esther that the descendant of 'karahu' has risen up against us." This was a reference to Amalek, from whom Haman descended. When the Torah describes the attack of Amalek on Klal Yisroel, it terms it, "That he happened upon you on the way" (Devarim 25:18). Mordechai was telling Hasach the underlying perspective and rationalisation upon which all of the evil of Amalek rested: Belief in random, arbitrary coincidence.
Amalek was no different than all the other nations. He saw what they saw. He was no less aware of the miracles that occurred than them. The only difference was his perspective. Where they saw purpose and reason, he saw only random happenings. True, great miracles had occurred to the Jews, but that was no reason to assume that they would continue to occur. They just had a long streak of good luck. Maybe now, it would be Amalek's turn.
This had a powerful effect on the surrounding nations. Before they had cowered, afraid of the wrath of Hashem, having seen clearly his strength and might. Now their attitude had changed. Chazal compare this to a tub filled with boiling water. All of the onlookers are afraid to enter until a brazen man comes along and jumps in. Even though he is scalded, the waters have cooled in the eyes of others to the extent that they are now willing to test them. In the same manner, by attacking Klal Yisroel, Amalek eroded the aura of invincibility that surrounded them. It would not be long before other nations followed suit.
Truthfully, the damage that Amalek caused to Klal Yisroel's image was probably minor compared to that which was caused to the nations' fear of Hashem. Where before they were certain they had seen the Hand of Hashem, now they were not so sure.
Until now, we have examined the outlook of Amalek. This is merely a symptom. Let us now delve deeper, so as to determine the disease from which this perspective arises.
When Amalek saw the miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim and Keriyas Yam Suf, he was faced with a choice: On the one hand, he could accept these as the miracles that they are. This would mean acknowledging the Hand of Hashem in these 'happenings', and accepting that there exists a higher purpose in the world, and the potential for holiness in man. Or he could chalk it all up to random fate, thereby freeing himself of any responsibility or obligation in life. Amalek was unable to accept this innate holiness, and therefore chose the latter. Perhaps we could compare his reaction to that of a person, who after witnessing the beauty and infinite levels of order in nature, refuses to acknowledge the existence of a Creator. He is also fully aware of all the wonders of the world, yet he rejects any notion of Higher Purpose, attributing all to random chance.
This reluctance to see the holiness that permeates all aspects of our world is truly the disease that Amalek represents. Our Mitzvah, then, is to eradicate this from within ourselves utterly and completely. As we shall soon see, this attitude can manifest itself in numerous areas of our Avodas Hashem. Our job, therefore, is to first identify, and then erase, any traces of this mind-set from within us.
The Mishnah states, "One who reveals Torah concepts not in keeping with the dictates of Torah law, or one who reddens (from shame) the face of his colleague in public, even if he bears knowledge of Torah and good deeds, he will have no share in Olam Habah" (Avos 3:11). The Gemora (Sanhedrin 99a) explains that all of these concepts are derived from the verse, "For he has denigrated the word of Hashem… the soul of that person shall be cut off".
Maharal elaborates on this theme: When one shames his friend, he blatantly ignores the holiness inherent to a person created in the "Image of Hashem". This holiness is expressed on the countenance of one's face. Although only people of sufficient spiritual calibre are capable of actually perceiving it, it is still within the reaches of every person to recognise this. When one refuses to allow himself to do so, and instead shames his friend, he has placed himself in the category of one who 'denigrates the word of Hashem'. As such, his soul is cut off, and he has no share in Olam Habah.
Similarly, one who reveals Torah concepts not in keeping with Halacha has demonstrated a lack of reverence for the holiness of the Torah. Actually, there are two additional opinions in the Gemora as to the interpretation of this phrase. First, one who shames a Talmid Chacham or someone in the presence of a Talmid Chacham. And secondly, one who says that he derives no benefit from the Torah of a Talmid Chacham. Regardless of the interpretation, the common denominator is the same: Only one who does not appreciate the unique spiritual value and holiness intrinsic to the Torah and, by extension, those who study it, would say such things or act in such a way.
Even after we understand the internal workings of these sins, we are left with a question. The punishment seems too extreme! One forfeits his portion in Olam Habah! What has he done to deserve such severe consequences?
Chazal describe Olam Habah as, "The righteous sit and derive pleasure from the shine of the Shechina". Clearly, they are referring to a spiritual pleasure that is attained through closeness and attachment to Hashem, the source of all holiness. If one does Mitzvos for the purpose of developing closeness with Hashem, i.e. he recognizes the holiness in his act, and has this in mind as the purpose behind his action, then he is rewarded in Olam Habah with the attainment of this holiness and a connection to Hashem far greater than he experienced in this world. However, if one does not have this understanding, and merely does the Mitzvos because he sees them as beneficial to society or because he was indoctrinated this way, then he never strove for spiritual connection, and so he is incapable of receiving this as his reward. He is therefore unable to receive his portion of Olam Habah.
When one denigrates Torah scholars or shames his fellow, he is expressing a lack of recognition of the holiness of Torah or the potential holiness of man. As such, he has stripped all of his actions, whether Torah learning or good deeds, of any connection to holiness, and has made himself into a vessel incapable of receiving the Holiness of Olam Habah.
This, then, is the Amalek within us. When we hear a ruling of our Torah leaders that disturbs us, and we allow ourselves to comment disparagingly or negatively, or even to feel negative sentiments, we must realise that we are allowing Amalek to rise up within us. The price is too great! If we were to consider for a moment the spiritual greatness of our Torah leaders, we would surely be capable of recognising that they see and understand life on a dimension totally beyond our own. With this in mind, it would require only a small 'leap of faith' for us to accept their rulings with true emunas chachamim, and without criticism.
Since the attitude of Amalek bears such a price, and has such a detrimental effect on all of our actions, the Torah's attitude towards it is equally severe: "You should erase utterly the mention or remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens". One who doesn't have the proper appreciation of Torah and Mitzvos, is crippled in his ability to attain Olam Habah. Amalek, who completely rejects the notion of the existence or potential of holiness in this world, is completely incompatible with the realm of Olam Habah. Since the purpose of this world is exclusively to prepare ourselves for the next, Amalek serves no purpose even in this world, and so we are commanded to totally annihilate him from it.
In closing, Rav Yechezkel Levenstien zt"l, Mashgiach (spiritual adviser) of Ponievezh Yeshiva, used to explain the mitzvah of Mechiyas Amalek as follows. In order to fulfill this mitzvah properly, one must first develop a hatred for any evil within him, and only then can he strive to eradicate the source of this evil from without, Amalek. So long as we are tolerant of the evil within us, and allow it to guide our actions, and to play a part in the formulation of our life-perspectives, we are partners with this evil, and have not succeeded in the first phase of Mechiyas Amalek. Certainly, we are not ready to move on to the second stage.
Particularly in our generation, where there is great emphasis on the strict adherence to the minutiae of Halacha, one must be careful to place equal stress on the understanding and the kedusha (holiness) of his actions and not allow this equally critical component to fall by the wayside. By developing our senses to see the Hand of Hashem in all our experiences, and by ensuring that our actions do not fall into the category of 'actions by rote' we can fulfill the mitzvah of Mechiyas Amalek every day of our lives.
1. Based on Sifsei Chaim
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