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Adapted by Rabbi Yossi Marcus

Purim 1920, Rostov:

“On 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.…[1]

Two 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.

The 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.

But 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.).

This essay, elaborates on the Amalek phenomenon and its function within our lives.


“Remember what 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.

To explain.

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.

This internal 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.

The first 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?

Amalek, says the Midrash (cited in Rashi Lev. 26:14), knows his Master and intends to rebel against Him.

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.

Amalek, then, 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.[2]

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.[3]

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  (achishenah).

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.

(This 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.”

In this way an end is put to darkness, and even Amalek is recruited into the realm of holiness. (Reishis Goyim 5680 by the Rebbe Rayatz)

[Adapted by Rabbi Yosef Marcus.]



[1] From the Biography of the Rebbe Rashab (printed as an appendix to Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashanah 5659 (Kehot)); see also the introduction to An End to Evil (Sichos in English).

[2] It was the news of (the splitting of the sea) and the war with Amalek that brought Yisro out to the desert (Rashi Ex. 18:1). According to the Zohar (2:67b), the giving of the Torah was contingent upon Yisro’s arrival.

[3] For a halachic discussion on Rambam’s source for this ruling, see Pesach Eynaim by Chida on Sanhedrin 96b; Ayn Zocher 3:1; Avnei Nezer 1:508; Responsa of Dovev Mesharim 3:66; et al.

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 Society.



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