Haman: Heir to Amalek

May 9, 2009

5 min read


Amalek, the nation that personified evil, insisted that God was absent in the world and everything happened by chance.

Remember what Amalek did to you as you were leaving Egypt. He happened upon you, and struck the weakest people trailing behind, when you were exhausted. And he did not fear God. (Deut. 25:17-18)

God said to Moses: Write this remembrance in the book... that I will surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. (Exodus 17:14)

Jacob and Esav

At no time of the Jewish year is the synagogue as "wild" as during the Megillah reading: Every time Haman's name is read, the congregation erupts in a deafening chorus of groggers, clanging pots, cap-guns and sirens. Some write Haman's name on the bottom of their shoes and stomp it out. Others write his name in wax and melt it!

Who was Haman, and why the obsession with blotting out his name?

To understand, we have to go back to the time of Jacob our forefather. Jacob had a twin brother Esav, who was a lifelong rival ― so much so that Esav sought to kill Jacob (see Genesis 27:41).

The Midrash says that when Esav was getting old, he called in his grandson Amalek and said: "I tried to kill Jacob but was unable. Now I am entrusting you and your descendents with the important mission of annihilating Jacob's descendents ― the Jewish people. Carry out this deed for me. Be relentless and do not show mercy."

True to his mission, Amalek has historically tried to destroy the Jews. For example, in Exodus 17:8, Amalek attacked the Jews out of pure hatred ― Amalek lived in a distant land and was under no imminent threat.

So what does Amalek have to do with Purim? The Scroll of Esther (3:1) identifies Haman as the descendent of Agag, King of Amalek. Haman's desire to wipe out the Jewish people was an expression of his long-standing national tradition.

Random vs. Design

This conflict is much deeper than just a "sibling rivalry." Philosophically, Amalek and the Jewish people stand at two opposite ends of the spectrum.

The Talmud explains: What is the meaning of the phrase "[Amalek] happened ("karcha") upon you..." (Deut. 25:18)? The Hebrew word "karcha" literally means coincidence or happenstance. Amalek's entire philosophy is that there is no design or providence in the world. Everything is haphazard, dictated by chance, luck and fate. That's why the verse continues: "And [Amalek] did not fear God."

On the other hand, Jacob and his descendents the Jews represent conscience and morality. The world has purpose and meaning and every individual is created in the image of God. From this foundation, the Jews introduced to the world concepts like monotheism, equality for all people, and universal education. This is the essence of what the prophet describes as being a "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6).

While Jacob believes that God runs the world and there is an absolute standard of morality, Esav believes that life is random ― and morality is therefore subjective. Esav’s hatred for the message of morality actually forms the basis of all anti-Semitism. Just as the Jews stand for the principle of caring for the vulnerable and weak, Amalek is the opposite ― "attacking the weakest people trailing behind" (Deut. 25:18).

Effect of the Enemy

The Talmud takes another approach to the language of the verse: "[Amalek] happened ("karcha") upon you..." (Deut. 25:18). The Hebrew word "karcha" is also related to the word "kar," meaning "cold." That is to say: Amalek cooled the Jews off. When the Jews came out of Egypt, on the heels of 10 mighty plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, all the nations were afraid to challenge the God of the Jews. But Amalek came, did battle, and ― even though they were defeated militarily ― they nevertheless paved the way for others.

By way of analogy, it is as if the Jewish people were a boiling hot bath that nobody was able to enter. Then along came a stranger and jumped in. Even though he suffered bad burns, he cooled it off ("kar") for others to follow.

So why do we have to stomp out Haman? Because we must recognize our enemies and fight them. Not because we enjoy war, but because part of being a "good person" is to actively seek the destruction of evil.

There are evil people actively working to eliminate God consciousness from the world. Know your enemy and fight against it. "Erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens" (Exodus 17:14).

Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf writes:

The gragger in the hand of a child on Purim is there to remind us how to relate to evil. Like Amalek, it must be erased. Not by labeling it as sick and psychoanalyzing it into oblivion, but by calling it what it is ― evil ― and dealing with it as bluntly as it would deal with us.

Amalek Today

In our own lives, we can gauge the extent of Amalek's encroachment by measuring our own level of belief in God. To the extent that an individual doubts the existence of God, is the extent that Amalek's philosophy of randomness has become a part of us. One of Amalek's battle tactics is to create doubt about God's presence, in an attempt to confuse and ultimately destroy the Jewish people. Appropriately, the numerical value of "Amalek" ― 240, is the same value as the Hebrew word safek, meaning "doubt."

But after all, what is so insidious about a world without God?

It’s simple, says the Talmud: If Torah, the source of universal truths, was eliminated, then the world would revert to emptiness. That is because humanity simply cannot survive without clear moral direction. Morality holds civilizations together; it's absence leads to chaos.

Judaism does not deny the existence of individuals with the most extreme psychological disorders, but it does assert that one need not be "sick" to carry out the most brutal and hideous of crimes. Adolf Hitler, Adolf Eichmann and the thousands of doctors, professors, farmers, teachers, barbers, receptionists, retailers, lawyers, mechanics, entrepreneurs and secretaries who made soap, lamp shades, coat stuffing and ashes out of Jews were not sick! They were just plain evil. By abandoning morality, they were able to rationalize genocide as "noble and good." It is not surprising, therefore, that the Talmud (Megillah 6b) identifies a nation called "Germamia" as the descendents of Amalek.

Roots of Anti-Semitism

The Torah says: "Amalek battled Israel in (a place called) Refidim" (Exodus 17:8). The Midrash explains that the name "Refidim" is a contraction of Hebrew words meaning "they loosened their grip on Torah." As long as the Jews were diligent in Torah study, Amalek had no dominion over them. But as soon as Jewish study became lax, they were in danger.

In describing the actual battle with Amalek, the Torah says: "When Moses raised his hand, Israel was stronger. And when Moses lowered his hand, Amalek was stronger" (Exodus 17:11). Moses' raised hands symbolize the Jews raising their eyes heavenward in a commitment to God and Torah. "When Moses' hands are lowered" ― i.e. the Jewish people take a secular approach to life ― then we lose. It is a direct inverse proportion: Turning away from God automatically causes Amalek to rise, and vice-versa.

The way to counteract Amalek's influence is simple: strengthen Torah. We cannot become lax. For as the verse says, the battle with Amalek is "in every generation" (Exodus 17:16). God's presence will not be complete in this world until the name of Amalek is blotted out entirely.

So this Purim, when you hear Haman's name, spin your grogger, howl like a wolf ― and make the commitment to study Torah, as a way to battle the insidiousness of Amalekite ideology.

Next Steps