This Shabbos we have a special, additional Torah reading, Parshas Zachor. That text (Devarim, 25: 17-19) teaches us the mitzva to remember to wipe out Amalek.
Clearly, the Torah views this as an extremely important mitzva, Thus, the tone with which the Torah tells us about this mitzva is unusually stark. . Likewise, this is one of the few Torah texts that we read in Shul twice in the course of a year — both on the Shabbos before Purim, and later in the year, as part of the regular cycle of Torah reading. Moreover, the reinforcement that comes with this doubled reading is in addition to an (almost) parallel text (Shemos, 17, 14-16). The pesukim there also speak of the importance of obliterating Amalek. Finally, to underline the importance of our remembering what we have to do, Parshas Zachor is the only Torah reading in the entire year which we are all obliged to hear — men and women — as a mitzva de’oraisa (a Commandment specified explicitly in the Torah).
With our heightened awareness of this mitzva’s special importance, let us see what the Sfas Emes says about me’chiyas (wiping out) Amalek. Before we begin that discussion, note some potential problems that arise when we attempt to deal with this mitzva.
A basic question: How do we go about performing this mitzva? That is, what do we have to do to fulfill our obligation of wiping out Amalek? In an effort to perform this mitzva, some people write the name of Amalek, and then erase it.. Very literal. But somehow, that does not seem to be what the Torah has in mind when it mandates obliterating Amalek. How to perform this mitzva is especially unclear because of a special feature of this situation. Chazal tell us that Sancheriv, the Assyrian king, forced the many nations that he conquered to leave their homelands and settle elsewhere. As a result of these mass population movements, Chazal say, we can no longer identify the nations to which the Torah refers — e.g., Amalek — with the present-day inhabitants of the lands that bear those historic names.
One might suppose that because we can no longer know who is Amalek, this mitzva would lapse. Not so ! Sefer HaChinuch tells us that this mitzva still applies. With our curiosity piqued by these questions, we proceed eagerly to the words of the Sfas Emes.
The Sfas Emes tells us: “Ve’ikar peirush ze’chira hi penimiyus ha’chiyus.” That is, the essence of “zechira” (from the root of Zachor ) is a person”s inner vibrancy– his inner consciousness and awareness. If zechira is awareness/consciousness, we can begin to understand what the Torah means when it tells us to obliterate Amalek. The Sfas Emes makes this interpretation explicit. How do we ” wipe out Amalek ?” The Sfas Emes answers : By living our lives in a state of awareness. As he phrases it : obliterating Amalek means: not living our lives “derech ara’i” — i.e., in a casual, not thought-through manner.
The Sfas Emes has given us a radically new interpretation of the mitzva of wiping out Amalek. Unfortunately, he did not fully explain what led him to his startling conclusion. For lack of full information on how he arrived where he arrived, his interpretaion may seem arbitrary. To counter that ( erroneous) impression, I suggest some corroborative information that the Sfas Emes may have had in mind in reaching this interpretation.
The Torah tells us about the mitzva of wiping out Amalek in Devarim 25:17-19. One posuk there says: “Ve’haya behani’ach HaShem Elokecha le’cha mi’kohl o’yevcha mi’saviv . . . timche . . . ” (ArtScroll: “When HaShem will give you rest from all of your enemies around you, wipe out . . . “) This pasuk is saying that we are to deal with Amalek at a time when we have no problems with the outside world. The implication is clear: Amalek is within us,presumably in our dei’os ra’os (reprehensible ideas.)
What might these reprehensible ideas be? In indicting Amalek, the Torah says about him: ” Who happened upon you (“asher korcha”) when you were on the road, after you left Egypt.” The key word here is “korcha.” In addition to its literal meaning (“happened upon you,”), this word is also rich in allusions. Thus, Chazal add: Amalek “cooled you off” (from the word “kor” –cold), reducing the warmth of your relationship with HaShem.
How did Amalek “cool us off?” We return to the word ” korcha” for more information.. That word comes fom the same root as the word “mikreh”– chance. Thus, one ploy that Amalek employed to reduce the intensity of our relationship with HaShem was to induce us to think that the world is governed by “mikreh” rather than by hashgacha (Divine Providence)., Indeed, the Hebrew letters of the word “mikreh– i.e., MKRH — can be rearranged to form the words: “rak mei’HaShem”. that is: “only from HaShem” — the very opposite of a world where chance rules.
Note further an allusion prompted by the gematria (i.e., the numerical value of the letters that form the word) of “Amalek.” The gematria turns out to be the same as the gematria of the letters that form the word “safeik” (doubt). Thus, we see what Chazal meant when they told us that Amalek “cooled off” our people. We see further why the Sfas Emes may have arrived at his powerful new interpretation of me’chiyas Amalek.
The Sfas Emes is also saying that, under the heading of “obliterating Amalek,” the Torah is advising us to avoid a serious danger to which we can easily fall prey. That danger is a mindset that sees life as a series of meaningless, random events. Indeed, this mindset attempts to plant a doubt in our minds as to whether life has any meaning or purpose at all. Even if this mindset concedes token adherence to a life of Torah, this mindset tells us to “be cool”– not to live that Torah life with warmth, intensity, and devotion.
Note how the Sfas Emes’s interpretation — do not live your life in a casual manner — fits in snugly with one of the themes of Purim. The English-language name for Purim is: ” the Feast of Lots”. This name comes from the “lots” which Haman cast to determine the date of our annihilation. The more common Hebrew word for “lots” is “goral” — a word which has two meanings. ” Goral” can mean a random event, a purely chance happening. Also “goral” sometimes refers to unavoidable fate. In that sense, “goral” sees our lives as governed by arbitrary forces beyond our control.
Both of these meanings go strongly counter to our hashkofo (ideological perspective). A Torah perspective views our lives as governed by hashgocho peratis. This individualized Divine Providence, , in turn,is susceptible to being influenced by our conduct. Thus the very name of Purim suggests (in a typically hidden fashion) two mindsets that the Sfas Emes has told us to eradicate by wiping out Amalek! Living our lives in constant awareness of HaShem — i.e., me’chiyas Amalek — will save us from those two all too prevalent dead ends.
Finally, recall the context within which these words are being said. The Sfas Emes is speaking to his Chassidim on Shabbos Zachor. In that context, he points out that Shabbos provides an excellent opportunity to think through how we are living our lives; and thus to fulfill the mitzva of “zachor.” How so? Because Shabbos is a time of menucha (repose.) and. repose is conducive to serious thought and introspection. Note further: the posuk in Devarim cited above (the posuk which commands us to obliterate Amalek), begins with the words “Vehaya behaniach,” . We can read the word ‘behaNiaCH ” as coming from the same root as the word “menucha”, thus giving a special role for Shabbos Zachor in the Sfas Emes’s vision of me’chiyas Amalek.