Remembering Amalek

May 9, 2009

10 min read


Amalek had a vested interest in attacking the Jewish people, whose very existence proved the existence of God to the world.

Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way when you were leaving Egypt... (Deut. 25:17-19)

"Remember what Amalek did to you." How can one do that? The Torah says, "Remember the day of Shabbat." We can't remember both! (Midrash - Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer)

We are an intelligent people. Can we not manage to remember Shabbat, while also remembering Amalek?

And why is Amalek so significant? Thousands of nations have oppressed the Jewish people. Why are the Amalekites alone singled out?

The most common answer is that they were the first. It was their audacity, in attacking the Jews immediately after the Exodus, which emboldened later enemies to rise against us.

This is only partially true, however. The first to attack were actually the Egyptians -- who pursued the Jews at the Red Sea, shortly after the Exodus.

The truly accomplishment of the Amalekites was that they attacked us when no one else dared. After the splitting of the Sea, "The nations heard... fright gripped them" (Exodus 15:14). Even the most wicked nations were sufficiently impressed by the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Sea. They may have wanted to attack, but they were scared enough of the God of the Jews to lay off!

Amalek, on the other hand, was unimpressed. What gave them the temerity to attack, at the very hour that the entire world recognized God's protection of the Jewish People? Why weren't they terrified, too?

"Hit the scoffer, and the naive one will awaken" (Proverbs 19:25). The Midrash explains this to mean that the Jewish People smote the Amalekites -- the scoffers, and Yitro, who was naive, awakened and came to convert. Rabbi Tzaddok HaKohen offers a pithy comment on this passage: "Amalek is a scoffer who believes in nothing, and Yitro is naive, believing everything." What does this mean?

Before the advent of Amalek, there were two schools of thought. The nations believed that various powers ran the world -- idols, demons, angels, etc. As an alternative, Abraham established the concept of monotheism in the world -- a conviction that God controlled all events. Amalek introduced a third idea -- belief in nothing! This is atheism, which posits that nothing special controls the world.

From Amalek's perspective, there is really nothing to live for. In an atheistic civilization, morals are intrinsically fluid, and subject to change. The natural goals of such a society can only be greed, might and power. It is survival of the fittest. He who owns the most, and controls the most, wins!

Atheism is worse than idol worship. Idol worship is polytheism, the belief in many powers. It is possible to progress from many gods to belief in one God. The prime example is Abraham. Originally an idol worshipper, he eventually came to the knowledge that there can be only one true Power. The road from many powers to one power is relatively short, since the individual accepts in principle that there is something directing the universe.

However, Amalek denies that any power runs the world. It's all blind, accidental, happenstance. As Rabbi Tzaddok says, they believe in nothing. From this position, it is most difficult to accept the Almighty God.

Amalek had a vested interest in attacking the Jewish people, whose very existence proved the existence of God to the world. They proved that spiritual powers exist, and that there are absolute values. Amalek needed to attack the Jews, as they had struck a major blow for the twin ideas of God's existence and absolute morality.



After the splitting of the Sea, Yitro said, "Now I know that God is greater... Meekol Elohim." Meekol Elohim is generally understood to mean, "Than all other powers." However, it can also mean, "From all other powers." Yitro was familiar with all the other so-called powers. In other words, he believed in everything. He had already accepted that some force, or forces, exists, that control the world. From this knowledge, he eventually accepted the supremacy of God. He witnessed the myriad miracles of the Exodus, and the evidence led him to understand that only one Power ruled the world.

At the time, people had the basic understanding that some force controls this world, and that whatever this power was, it was on the Jews' side. So you'd better keep away!

By contrast, Amalek, as atheists, believed that all worldly occurrences were pure coincidence. Even the amazing, incredible events of the Exodus and Red Sea were explained away as flukes of nature. Nothing could convince them to fear God.

A Russian-born scientist named Vilakovsky once hypothesized that the Ten Plagues occurred, the Red Sea split, and the sun stopped for Joshua at Gigul (Joshua 10:13). Yet Vilakovsky remained a committed atheist. He claimed that Venus left its normal orbit at the time of these occurrences, swung close to earth, and caused all these phenomena.

Of course, it is conceivable for Venus to move out of its regular track and trigger amazing events on Earth. However, consider the timing! When the Jews needed to escape their enemies, Venus appeared at the right moment to split the Sea! Then at the very instant that the Egyptians pursued them into the Sea, Venus moves away, allowing the waters to drown them. Amazing! And 40 years later, when Joshua needed help, there's Venus again!



The Torah declares: "For the hand is on the throne of God: God maintains a war against Amalek..." (Exodus 17:16). The Sages teach that, "God's throne is not complete, as long as Amalek exists in this world. Nor is His name complete."

The usual word for throne is keesay (kaf-samech-aleph), yet in this verse, when Amalek exists, a variant form kase (kaf-samech) is used. Kase means "covered." In Amalek's worldview, God does not exist. When such an ideology is present in the world, it is more difficult for everyone, even the believers, to be secure in their belief, because the certainty of God's existence is concealed.

Amalek also shares the same numerical value (240) as safek, doubt. The very existence of Amalekite philosophy causes uncertainty. Kase is the word keesay, but with the aleph missing. Seeing a king upon his throne demonstrates his supremacy over his kingdom. If the king is missing from his throne, the domination of his rule is called into question. When the King of Kings -- represented by the aleph, (the One God) -- is removed from His keesay, His preeminence comes into question.

In the same verse referring to God's war against Amalek, Yah is spelled yud-hey. It is a name of God, but is also a fragment of the complete 4-letter Name -- yud-hey-vav-hey. The complete name indicates that God is the controller of all facets of time -- past, present and future. The fragmented 2-letter Name indicates past and future, but not the present. In other words, with Amalek, we can detect God's presence in the past (we look back and see obvious miracles), and we can hope for the future. But it is difficult to perceive Him in the present, for Amalek has sown doubt in our hearts.



Which Jewish shortcoming brought Amalek upon them? When the Jews reached Refidim, they had no water, and complained to Moses. They suggested that God did not have the ability to provide them with water (Exodus 17:1-3). This was a preposterous claim. They had just seen God perform the greatest miracles in history. How could they doubt His ability to supply water?!

The explanation is that they knew that God could execute stunning, supernatural miracles. But their claim was that He does not interfere with the natural order which He has set in place. He steps in when a serious deviation from nature is needed, but at all other times, He is passive in the day-to-day operation of the world.

This was a nod toward Amalekite philosophy. The Jews had acknowledged that aspects of the world are controlled by blind coincidence. This made the Jews susceptible to Amalek, enabling the attack at Refidim.

The Torah tells us that in the ensuing battle, the Jews gained the upper hand when Moses lifted his hands. When his hands fell, the Amalekites gained the advantage. The Talmud explains that when the Jews saw Moses' hands lifted heavenward, they remembered God, and were strengthened.

Superficially, this seems odd. If the idea was simply to remind them of God, Moses should have simply erected a billboard, with an advertisement for God on it! It seems there was a specific reason for the display of Moses' hands.

The Midrash compares Amalek to a dog. Rabbi Yitzchak of Volozhin explains that a dog, when struck with a stick, sinks its teeth into the stick. It fails to realize that its real opponent is the person wielding the stick. So too, Amalek's error is that they view all worldly events at face value. They refuse to perceive the secondary forces which cause every event to occur. They only see the stick, and not the master who brandishes it.

The hands of Moses were a test for the Jewish people. It was clear that when Moses' hands went up, the Jews succeeded, and vice versa. Would the Jews succumb to Amalek's thinking once again? Would the Jews attribute their victory to 'Moses's magical hands'? Or, would they look beyond the hands, and see... God!



Which brings us to our original question: Why should it be difficult, as the Midrash implies, for us to simultaneously remember both Shabbat and Amalek?

Indeed, as we have seen, the more we are influenced by Amalek, the weaker is our belief in God. Shabbat, meanwhile, is a testimony that God created the world. It testifies that He is involved in the world. So the two are contradictory -- one strengthening our belief, and the other weakening it.

The solution is that we do not "remember Shabbat" in order to observe it. We are not afraid that otherwise we would neglect the observance of Shabbat; we could check the calendar. The idea is that by mentioning Shabbat -- as we do every day of the week -- we recall the message of Shabbat, inculcating ourselves with the knowledge that God created the world, and that He alone controls it.

Similarly, we do not simply remember Amalek. We are to remember the message of Amalek. The Midrash offers the following parable:

There was a man who had a vineyard, and his neighbor attempted to steal some grapes. The owner's dog bit the thief. The following year, the owner of the vineyard wanted to ensure that his neighbor wouldn't steal the grapes again. However, he did not want to embarrass the fellow, by declaring, "Don't steal my grapes again!" Instead he said, "Remember what my dog did to you last year!" The neighbor got the message!

No, we are not commanded to remember Amalek's wicked teachings. That might weaken our convictions. But we are commanded to remember what brought Amalek upon us. God did not want to embarrass the Jews by mentioning their shortcoming. Instead, He commanded us to remember what Amalek did to us, and consequently, we recall the entire background.

And then we will strengthen our belief, and we will be able to counteract Amalek.

Based on an address by Rabbi Zev Leff at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, 2001.

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