Thursday, February 26, 2015

Amalek Against Jerusalem

Rabbi David Chai Hacohen

By Rabbi David Chai Hacohen (Written by the rabbi)

Dedicated to the memory of Asher Ben Haim

1. Remember - Do Not Forget
2. The Throne of God
3. War on Two Levels
4. If I Forget Thee Jerusalem5. Fourteen, Fifteen

Remember - Do Not Forget
In reading the "Zakhor" Torah portion (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), we fulfill two Torah commandments: the commandment to "remember (‘zakhor’) what Amalek did to you" (Ibid. 17), which is a positive precept to verbalize the Torah verses which warn us of our obligation to remember Amalek’s act. The nation of Amalek, which stood out as the most powerful nation of its day, both militarily and culturally, attempted to prevent Israel from returning to their homeland after the long Egyptian exile and to forestall them from carrying out their Divine task of building a Holy Temple as a Throne of Honor for the God of the Universe, and, by so doing, to illuminate the darkness of the physical world with an eternal light.

The second commandment, "Do not forget [what Amalek did to you]" (Ibid. 19), is a negative precept. Its purpose is to make us aware of the fact that verbalization is not enough. The idea must be ingrained in one’s heart as well. Only after we have fully absorbed, inwardly and outwardly, the recognition of our responsibility to build the Temple, the construction of which is dependent upon the annihilation of the nation of Amalek and the perfection of the world, will we possess the courage to rise up and wage war upon our archenemy. In doing this, the words of the Torah, "and nobody will stand before them (Joshua 21:42)" will be fulfilled through our nation.

The Throne of God
In "Psikta DeRav Kahana," on the verses of the Zakhor portion, the sages raise a question regarding the commandment to annihilate the Amalekites. Here it is written, "erase all memory of Amalek" (Deuteronomy 25:18), i.e., the obligation is ours - we must erase; elsewhere, though, it is written "for I will surely erase all memory of Amalek" (Exodus 17:14), i.e., the Almighty Himself will carry out this act. How is it possible for both of these two verses to be fulfilled? Is it we that are to erase the memory of Amalek, or God?

The Midrash answers: "Up until the point where Amalek reached out his hand in an attempt to take hold of the Throne of God, the Torah tells us to ‘erase all memory of Amalek’; but, after actually having reached out and taken hold of God’s throne, ‘I will surely erase all memory of Amalek.’" The author of Psikta immediately asks, "But is it not inconceivable that flesh and blood take hold of God’s throne?" and answers, "[Taking hold of God’s throne is possible] by destroying Jerusalem, which is called, ‘the Throne of God,’ as it is written, "At that time they will call Jerusalem ‘the Throne of God.’" Therefore there was a need for the verse, "I will surely erase all memory of Amalek." And the Psikta explains, "Before Amalek laid his hands on Jerusalem, ‘erase all memory of Amalek,’ but once he laid his hands on Jerusalem, ‘God is at war with Amalek.’"

War On Two Levels
From the words of the Psikta, then, it becomes clear that Israel is engaged in a war with Amalek on two levels: the first concerns our national existence and calls for defending it from Amalek’s extreme cruelty, for the Amalekites take pity upon none. This is what is meant by the verse "Remember what Amalek did to you," the cruelty and evil heartedness which he showed you, "when they encountered you on the way," while you were unsettled, for it is common courtesy to commiserate with one who is on the road and has not yet reached his destination. What’s more, Amalek displayed cruelty toward the powerless and isolated, as it is written, "they cut off those lagging to your rear." This is what lies behind the commandment to resist being softhearted toward them, and instead take full revenge for what they did to our brothers and sisters, killing them for no reason: "Erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens."

The Torah, though, comes and teaches us that Amalek does not merely oppose our physical national presence. This evil nation opposes our purpose and spiritual mission in the world. This, then, is the "second" level of the war with Amalek. Amalek desires to topple God’s ability to establish a stronghold in this world, with an inner recognition that the only true resting place for Divinity in this world is amidst His chosen nation. Amidst them exists the largest concentration of "holy lights," and these lights, in this world, are produced in Jerusalem, the Holy City. Therefore he makes a concentrated effort to smash this stronghold, God’s worldly throne in Jerusalem.

We can thus see how the words of the verse, "First among nations is Amalek" (Numbers 24:20), are coming true in our own generation. An international attack is being waged upon Israel - especially upon its spirit, the Divine spirit whose practical expression is the rebuilt city of Jerusalem.

In light of this, we gain strength from the knowledge that the war against God and His throne draws the Almighty Himself into the picture. Therefore, as in the words of the sages in their interpretation of the verse, "I will surely erase the memory of Amalek," we can expect Divine intervention in the form of a double blow: "Macheh, Emcheh" ("I will surely erase," in Hebrew, takes the form of a repetition of a single verb root - "Macheh Emcheh"). The Book of Zechariah contains explicit verses to this effect - that when the nations come to wage war on Jerusalem, God will "descend" from heaven to do battle with them.

Having clarified the above, it is now possible to better understand a number of episodes in the Book of Ester, in Jewish law, and in history.

If I Forget Thee Jerusalem
The Book of Ester relates and describes the nature of the struggle for survival into which the Jewish people were thrown in one of the most difficult periods in its existence. The Land of Israel was in a state of destruction, the Temple was burnt down, the Jews were scattered throughout the exile without any sort of recognizable concentrated leadership. In the lands of their exile the Jews lived in a detached, spiritual manner, to the point where they forgot themselves and their proud lineage and were prepared to sit down and partake in the celebration of gentiles in the capital city of Shushan.

One of the interesting things about the Book of Ester is the fact that no mention of the Land of Israel appears in the text. It does not appear even once. Yet, under the piles of ashes, a burning ember is discernable. The memory of Jerusalem, the Holy City, is not lost even to the Jews of Shushan who eat at the banquet of Achashverosh. What’s more, thanks to Jerusalem, they begin to recall their glorious past in the form of Yehoyakhin, the king of Judah, the Kingdom of Israel which was connected to Jerusalem.

This inner light makes noticeable those distinguishing marks which set the Jews apart from the nations amongst which they are mixed. "All that Mordecai instructed was written to the Jews, as well as to the governors, satraps, and nobles of the lands from India to Ethiopia, 127 lands, to each land in its writing, and to each nationality in its language - and to the Jews in their writing and language" (Ester 8:9). Handwritten script, one of man’s unique capacities, together with speech, language, which contains a special ring, uniquely attuned to the soul of the Jew, are clearly recognizable by their indelible inner signature. These roots bring forth "spices and the myrtles" - Mordechai and Ester, who, via the strong scent which they radiate, succeed in easing the putrid stench which threatened to suffocate God’s nation, Israel.

Fourteen, Fifteen
One of the more difficult questions regarding the Book of Ester is why the miracle occurred for two days and not for one as was the case with all other miracles merited by the Jewish people. What’s more, even though the miracle endured, why should the sages have seen fit to establish Purim as a two-day holiday? In addition, we find that the sages fixed the fifteenth of Adar as the date of celebration for all walled cities from the period of Joshua bin Nun, in commemoration of the miracle of Shushan the capital. Yet, when we consider what has transpired since the time of this ordinance, we find that there is no city in the Land of Israel, or, for that matter, in the entire world, which is fully obligated to read on the fifteenth of Adar - except for Jerusalem. For, all other cities which read on the fifteenth, read without a blessing, after having read on the fourteenth with a blessing. They read on the fifteenth only in order to be on the safe side. If so, Jerusalem is the one and only city in the world wherein the Scroll of Ester is read both day and night with a blessing, and in which the commandments of feasting, sending food items, and giving gifts to the poor must be carried out on the fifteenth, such that if one were to perform these acts on the fourteenth one would not have fulfilled his obligation. So, why did God arrange for the miracle of Shushan to reveal itself in Jerusalem? What is the connection between the holiest city in the world and Achashverosh’s capital?

Based upon our previous conclusions, the above difficulties are rendered explainable. The Jews in Shushan, subject to the influence of the Persian kingdom, were not able to hold their ground and were simply swept away by the current of muddy waters, to the point where these hapless Jews were no longer able to recognize their own national uniqueness and found themselves partaking in a non-kosher feast in the court garden of the king’s palace. And, despite this fact, even these Jews did not forget Jerusalem, for the Book of Ester makes note of the fact that Mordechai was from Jerusalem. Deep inside, they remembered the greatness of Jerusalem, and her royal memory which was alluded to in the name of her final king - "Yehoyachin" which may be translated: "God secured." God secured him and his kingdom in Jerusalem.

The Jews of other lands had not sunk so deeply into the pit of exile. For them, their merit was such that they were spared on the first day, the fourteenth of Adar. But for the Jews of distant and remote Shushan, the merit of the land of Israel and the Torah were not enough to help them, seeing as they were so far removed. They therefore could rely only upon the power of Jerusalem, with her ability to affect even the most distant Jews. For this reason, they received their miracle on a separate day. This teaches us that there are two levels in the redemption of Israel. The redemption of those who are close to the way of the Torah is quicker, and its inception takes place sooner, while redemption of the far-removed, though it too is bound to take place eventually, comes only later. This later redemption will result through the merit of a hard-core element, which will refuse to totter or crumble. This is the "Jerusalem core."

Hence, because the salvation of Shushan Jewry came about through the merit of Jerusalem, there was a need to emphasize and single out its unique status. This had to be done in a clear-cut manner leaving no room for doubt. Therefore a separate day was set aside for Jerusalem, for the sake of celebrating Purim.

We might perhaps, in light of the above, provide a unique explanation for the Biblical verse wherein God says to Moses: "Write this as a reminder in the Book...for the Hand is on God’s Throne. God shall be at war with Amalek for all generations" (Exodus 17:16). The word "hand" ("Yad" in Hebrew) hints at the first miracle, which occurred on the fourteenth of Adar (the word "Yad" has a numerical value of fourteen), while the word "God" ("Yah" in Hebrew) indicates the miracle which occured on the fifteenth of Adar ("Yah" equals fifteen).

We may, then, interpret the verse as follows: If one is puzzled at the fact that there are both "Yad" and "Yah" miracles, know that the first miracle takes place in order to spare Israel of their responsibility to erase the memory of Amalek, while the second one ("Yah") alludes to the Throne of God - Jerusalem. Hence, it is clear that it is the Almighty God Himself who exclaims "I will surely erase the memory of Amalek" should he dare to lay a hand on Jerusalem.

May we be privileged to witness with our own eyes the heartwarming return of God’s presence to Zion, with compassion.

Some of the verses in the above article were taken from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s "The Living Torah," and from the "Me’am Loez Torah Anthology," (both published by Moznaim)

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