Posted on March 11, 2022 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
This Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor after the special reading from Deuteronomy(1) which commands us to remember what Amalek did to us on our journey, after we left Egypt. Mercilessly, and undeterred by fear of God, Amalek caught us in a moment of weakness and attacked from the rear, cutting down the stragglers among us. Therefore, we were commanded to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.”(2)
We read this additional passage each year on the Shabbat before Purim because the war against the evil Amalek was not concluded, not upon our arrival in the Promised Land, and not by King Saul, as described by the haftarah for this Shabbat.(3) As a result, in every generation we are faced again with the manifestation of evil that is Amalek. The malevolent empire of Rome that destroyed our Holy Temple, the wicked Haman who plotted to annihilate our people, and the diabolical Hitler and his genocidal henchmen, were all believed to be descendants of Amalek.
Over time our tradition came to understand that Amalek was not so much a person, or a nation, but a quality or trait that exists in every human being. It is the evil impulse that wreaks havoc, overwhelms moral constraints, and unleashes devastation and destruction when given free reign. It is, therefore, a mitzvah and a moral obligation to rise up against those who embody the quality of Amalek, to protect those who would be their victims, and to defeat them.
Tragically, we are now witnessing a manifestation of Amalek in the person of Vladimir Putin and his deputies. Putin is evil incarnate, and his treacherous schemes include indiscriminate killing, maiming, destruction of property, and the violation of the sovereignty of the Ukrainian nation and its homeland. He has flouted the canons of international law and undoubtedly committed atrocities and war crimes for which he must be held accountable. Our indignation and outrage at his heinous actions are appropriate, and we must take every appropriate step to thwart him and his accomplices.
In so doing, however, we must exercise caution. For if Amalek is indeed a quality or trait – the evil impulse that exists in every human soul – we must be careful not to respond by unleashing the ungodly in ourselves. We must remember, as we learn on Yom Kippur, that it is not the death of sinners that God desires, but the eradication of sin, and the uprooting of evil from the human heart – that we should repent of our evil ways and be renewed.
The story of Purim is a negative object lesson from which we must learn. Having successfully thwarted Haman and having survived his murderous plot against us, the Megillah goes on to describe how our people committed bloody acts of vengeance against the Persians.(4) What began as a legitimate act of self-defense against an evil monster turned into an atrocity that is a stain on the Jewish soul. It was Amalek run amok.
America and the world are right to resist the temptation to take up arms and go to war against Putin, for to do so would be to risk unleashing our own demonic forces. Yes, self-defense sometimes demands nothing less than fighting fire with fire. But this can come at a hefty price. As we have learned from experience, the sword does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked; it devours all. In today’s world when doomsday weapons are in play, the cost of that would be unconscionable.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right to remind us that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…”(5) It is there that the war against Amalek must be fought.
This is the lesson we must take to heart on this Shabbat Zachor and on the festival of Purim. It is good and right to let go and celebrate for a day when the innocent are vindicated and the wicked are defeated. But we must know that the war against the evil of Amalek goes on and that the battlefield is in every human heart. In this war, every small victory is a triumph that is measured by acts of kindness and compassion, by acts of justice and tzedakah, by standing for goodness and truth, and by pursuing harmony and peace. Amalek is thwarted when we make sure there are no stragglers left behind, when the abundance of God’s earth is the inheritance of all, and when love so fills every heart that there is no room for hate.
On this Shabbat Zachor let us remember the scourge of Amalek and pledge to eradicate it from our hearts and from the world.
Shabbat shalom and chag Purim sameach,
Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck