Adapted by Rabbi Yossi Marcus
Purim we all gathered at the Rebbe’s home for the Purim meal. The Bolsheviks had
prohibited any type of gathering, and feasts were an especially serious offense.
We sat there cringing, ready to flee at any moment. But about a half an hour into
the meal, we saw a change. A different spirit overtook the Rebbe. He instructed
us all to sing and he also began to sing. The sound of our singing was heard outside,
but because of our exuberance we disregarded everything and sang. The Rebbe’s
son was concerned that this was dangerous for the Rebbe, and the Rebbe said to
him: “Yosef Yitzchak! Do not fear!” A tumult arose in the house for we heard that
there would be searches in all the houses that night. But the Rebbe would not
allow us to stop the singing and rejoicing for even a moment. We had never seen
him in this way and we saw him display open miracles. Suddenly we heard that the
Bolsheviks had come to the Rebbe’s home. We were filled with dread and did not
know what to do. But the Rebbe did not stir. He instructed us to continue singing
as before… Bottles of spirits stood on the table as well as a pile of money that
had been donated for the yeshivah and other projects. Some of the chasidim wanted
to remove the bottles and money, but the Rebbe did not allow it. When officeres
entered the room, the Rebbe turned his face away from them and said: “Nu, we must
speak words of Chasidus and they will be totally nullified.” He then began saying
the discourse “Amalek is first among the nations,” which speaks about the nothingness
of kelipah. For a while they stood looking at him then left without a word.…”
weeks after that Purim, the Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson, fifth Rebbe
of the Chabad Lubavitch dynasty, passed away. His son and successor began his
first discourse with those same words.
Amalek of their time came in the form of a government that tried to suppress Jewish
practice and study. But Amalek comes in all shapes and sizes. The first Amalek
appeared just as the Jews were making their way toward Sinai. The entire world
stood in awe of their miraculous exit from Egypt and their spectacular passage through the sea. Only one
nation had the chutzpah, the irrational audacity to mount an attack against a
nation that was clearly under the personal care of the Master of the Universe.
Throughout history, Amalek’s descendants have attacked us. One of the most famous
is Haman, whose defeat we celebrate each Purim.
there is also a spiritual Amalek. The Midrash compares Amalek to one who jumps
into a boiling tub, which everyone is afraid to touch, and cools it off. Where
there is warmth and enthusiasm, the voice of Amalek is there to discourage and
throw cold water. Amalek is numerically equivalent to safek, doubt. Whenever
one considers doing a positive thing, Amalek introduces doubt into one’s mind
(“Why start or support that project—aren’t there much more important ones?” So
neither project gets done. “How can you begin to observe that tradition—we know
who you really are….” Etc.).
essay, elaborates on the Amalek phenomenon and its function within our lives.
Amalek did to you on the way as you were leaving Egypt…. Erase the
memory of Amalek…. Do not forget” (Deut. 25:17-9).
The exodus from Egypt
was an archetypal event in Jewish history—it is constantly being relived. Likewise
the war against Amalek: it is constant—in every generation and in every soul.
The soul descends from its celestial place and enters
“Egypt”—the animal soul and body. And it must constantly leave Egypt, i.e., the
confines and inhibitions of its earthly garments. Its goal is to reach the Holy
Land, the land described as “good and vast.”
These two stages—the exodus
from Egypt and the entrance into the Land—are called iskafya and ishapacha—suppression
and transformation. In exiting Egypt, the first stage, the soul suppresses
the negative tendencies of the animal soul and body. In thought speech and action,
the soul dictates the proper behavior. Any negative impulses that arise are pushed
away—with both hands.
In the second stage, the soul transforms the
animal soul and body and makes them into a “good and vast land.” It has entered
the Promised Land.
The first stage is called achoraim, “from the
back”—like a gift that is given begrudgingly: the giver does not look at the recipient.
The transaction has occurred but there is no inner communication between the two
parties. Similarly, in the first stage: the soul is in charge of the actions of
the body but there is no inner communication between them.
communication occurs in the second stage, the level of pnimiyus, innerness.
Here the soul is not an outsider enforcing its preferences upon an unwilling body.
It has converted the body, enlisting it in the service of G-d.
stage is a dangerous one. It is here that Amalek can attack: a) on the way from
Egypt to the Land, before the transformation of the animal soul; b) from the back,
as the Torah says of him, “he struck those of you who were furthest back”
(Deut. 25:18). At the second stage, once it has reached the Land, the soul is
impervious to Amalek’s attack.
Who is Amalek?
the Midrash (cited in Rashi Lev. 26:14), knows his Master and intends to rebel
Amalek contains the world malak, a word used in the
Torah to mean cutting the neck, severing the head from the body (Lev. 5:8). Amalek’s
modus operandi is to create dissonance. The head may know one thing, but why should
that affect the heart and body? He strikes at the neck, severing the head—which
contains inherent faith and belief—even in Egypt the Jews were “believers sons
of believers” (see Shabbos 97a)—and preventing it from circulating its views amid
the rest of the body.
He knows his master—but does not allow this
knowledge to find expression in practice.
Everyday, the battle against Amalek
must be waged. G-d creates Amalek to challenge man, and provide him with the freedom
to choose between light and darkness. When he chooses light despite Amalek’s whispers,
he reaches the Promised Land, the land that is good and vast.
serves as a tool for greater achievement. Thus the skirmish with Amalek after
the exodus was a necessary process to prepare for the giving of the Torah.
Yet it is
not only the one who battles Amalek that is elevated by the encounter, Amalek
himself is elevated.
That even Amalek—the epitome of evil—can be elevated
can be seen in the fact that, as the Talmud (Sanhedrin 96b) relates, some
of the descendants of Haman—himself an Amalekite—became converts and studied Torah
in Bnei Brak. (Zachor 5747)
Amalek’s ability to be transformed has
its halachic ramification as well. Rambam rules (Laws of Kings ch. 5, beg.)
that although the Torah instructs us to wipe out Amalek, nevertheless, if they
are prepared to live with us in peace and accept the seven laws of Noah, they
are to be spared.
For “all that G-d
created in His world, He created for His honor” (Avos ch. 6, end)—even
Amalek. He can become a part of G-d’s world when he makes peace and accepts the
laws of Noah, thereby removing himself from the status of the Amalek whom we are
commanded to eradicate. (Hisvaduyos 5747 2:377.)
The ultimate elevation
of the cosmic Amalek depends on how the redemption will take place. The Talmud
(Sanhedrin 98a) describes two possibilities: a) Moshiach will come at the
appointed time (b’itah); b) he will arrive early if we are meritorious
If Moshiach comes at the appointed time, then Amalek
will be destroyed, as Bilaam prophesies (Num. 24:20), “Amalek is the first among
nations, but his end is eternal destruction.”
But if we merit an early redemption,
Amalek will be elevated and incorporated within the realm of holiness.
idea is alluded to in Achashverosh’s instruction to Haman (Esther 6:10): “Hurry,
take the garment…and do all this for Mordechai the Jew…” This is a hint to the
idea that if the redemption comes early, in a manner of “hurry,” then Amalek (Haman)
will be elevated and become a garment of beauty for Mordechai the righteous).
On a personal level, transforming darkness is experienced as follows. The
verse states (Job 28:3), “He placed an end to darkness.” The Hebrew word for darkness,
choshech, is an acronym for Chamor, Shor, Kelev—donkey,
ox, dog (Meorei Or 8:61; see Zohar 2:65a).
On their negative side,
the donkey represents coldness (“a donkey is cold even in Tamuz” [Shabbos 53a]);
the ox represents goring and kicking, rebelliousness; and the dog represents insolence
(see Isaiah 56:14).
But this “darkness” can be transformed as follows:
The character of the donkey can be experienced by adopting its ability to carry
heavy loads; the goring of the ox can be experienced in the sharp analysis of
Torah study (as in “Torah scholars sparring in halachah” Bava Metzia
59b); and the dog’s swiftness can be adopted as in the appellation of the Jewish
people as a “swift nation” (Shabbos 88a, end), who rush to any positive
endeavor and who proclaimed quickly “we will do [and then] hear.”
way an end is put to darkness, and even Amalek is recruited into the realm of
holiness. (Reishis Goyim 5680 by the Rebbe Rayatz)
by Rabbi Yosef Marcus.]
Rabbi Yossi Marcus is director
of Chabad outreach activities in S. Mateo, California. He is also the editor of
the Q&A database at AskMoses.com and is one of the translators at Kehot Publication