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19.02.2018 17:32    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  tetzaveh  

“Blot out the memory of Amalek”

This year, Parashat Tetzaveh coincides with Shabbat Zakhor, when Jews throughout the world gather in their synagogues in order to hear the command:  “Zakhor, Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt…you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.  Do not forget!”  (Deut. 25:17-19).

With these words the Torah commands us to remember forever, to kill, destroy and annihilate the entire people of Amalek.  Why was this commanded specifically against Amalek?  What of the other peoples who did dreadful wrongs to the Jews?  What about Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, and a long list of others?  Regarding all these peoples, despite the wicked wrongs they committed towards the Jews, nowhere does it say that we are obliged to hate them or to work to destroy them in every generation.

Take Egypt, for example.  In the first chapter of Exodus we learn about all that the Egyptians did to the Jews:  “to oppress them with forced labor…The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform.  Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor…if it is a boy, kill him” (Ex. 1:11-16).  The Gemara adds many more details.  However, despite all this cruelty towards the Israelites, not only does the Torah not command us to hate the Egyptians, it even says, “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (Deut. 23:8).

In comparison with the cruelty perpetrated by the Egyptians against the Israelites for hundreds of years, Amalek did practically nothing.  The Torah reports one battle with Amalek, a battle that the Israelites won.  Thus the reason the Torah issues such a decree of annihilation against Amalek is far from clear.

The same inexplicable distinction between peoples (Amalek as opposed to Egypt) also exists between persons.  Haman is the villain of Purim.  But why is there no criticism of King Ahasuerus?  The Book of Esther gives the impression that Ahasuerus was just as evil as Haman.  When Haman decided to destroy the Jews, he understood that despite the tremendous power he wielded in the king’s court he did not have the authority to carry out his plan himself.  Therefore he appealed to the king to obtain his consent.  Haman began his appeal by bad-mouthing the Jews (“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples…whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in You Majesty’s interest to tolerate them” [Esther 3:8]), but he was apprehensive that this bad-mouthing would not suffice to persuade the king, so he offered Ahasuerus a vast sum of money (“I will pay ten thousand talents of silver”) if he would consent to destroy the Jews.

What was the king’s response to Haman’s proposal, a proposal totally devoid of mercy and contravening all morality?  Ahasuerus thought that Haman’s proposal to wipe out all the Jews was a fine idea and agreed forthwith.  Moreover, the king gave his consent without asking anything in exchange, and in his enthusiasm he even became an active partner in all the preparations for the planned genocide, as described at length in chapter 3 of the Book of Esther (vv. 10-15):

Thereupon the king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman…the foe of the Jews.  And the king said, “the money and the people are yours to do with as you see fit.”…The king’s scribes were summoned and a decree was issued, as Haman directed…The orders were issued in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s signet…The couriers went out posthaste on the royal mission…

When all had been prepared for the upcoming annihilation, the king decided that the time had come to celebrate, along with Haman, their plan for destruction of the Jews:  “The king and Haman sat down to feast” (Esther 3:15).

A single word from the king would have sufficed to do away with Haman’s plan completely, but that word was not given.  Quite the contrary, the king gladly supported Haman in every last detail of his dreadful plan and even aided him in the preparations.  In the light of all this, it would be reasonable to expect to find sharp condemnation of King Ahasuerus in the Megillah.  Jewish tradition, however, does not label Ahasuerus as wicked in this story.  For example, in the liturgical poem, Shoshanat Ya`akov, traditionally sung after the Megillah reading, there is no condemnation of Ahasuerus.  Haman is called “cursed,” as is his wife Zeresh (although it is not clear at all what crime she committed), but Ahasuerus is not even mentioned.  Thus, we have the same incomprehensible distinction regarding various peoples and various individual figures.

To understand what underlies this distinction we must distinguish between two types of anti-Semites.  The first kind can be called the “regular” anti-Semite, and the second kind, the “purist” anti-Semite, who is anti-Semitic purely for the sake of hating Jews.  The first kind of anti-Semite is the person who takes advantage of the Jews for his own benefit, all his intentions being to profit at their expense, not caring if he thereby causes them injury or even death.  He has no particular plan to wipe out the Jewish people or to kill Jews.  This approach describes Egypt and Ahasuerus, and all the other nations that have oppressed the Jewish people (Babylonia, Greece, Rome, etc.), and perhaps the entire world, to this very day.

Take Pharaoh’s behavior, for example.  After the ten plagues caused him to decide to let the Jews leave Egypt, Pharaoh regretted having made this decision.  “Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, ‘What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?’” (Ex. 14:5).  The last phrase, “from our service,” says it all.  Pharaoh and the Egyptians asked themselves, “If the Jews leave, who will do the hard labor for us?”  Who will clean the streets, build the cities and do all the rest of the menial labor for Egypt?  From this verse we learn that Pharaoh and the Egyptians related to the Jews as a tool serving the Egyptian people.  If the hard labor hurt the Jews or even caused their death, the Egyptians were not bothered by that in the least.  However, neither Egypt no Pharaoh had any specific program to kill the Jews.  Even when Pharaoh decreed, “If it is a boy, kill him,” (Ex. 1:16), he immediately added, “If it is a girl, let her live.”  Pharaoh saw the boys as a threat, and therefore he decreed that they specifically be killed, but did not decree against the girls.

Haman, who was a purist anti-Semite for the sake of it, acted quite differently.  His entire purpose was to destroy the Jews.  What did Haman expect to gain from his plan to wipe out the Jews?  Nothing at all.  Quite the contrary, Haman was actually prepared to pay a vast sum (“ten thousand talents of silver”) for the pleasure and joy of slaughtering the Jews (“to destroy, massacre and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day”).  This is what it means to be a purist anti-Semite.

In contrast to Haman, Ahasuerus was indifferent to the fate of the Jews.  When Haman, the king’s senior minister, proposed the idea of wiping out all the Jews, Ahasuerus went along with him.  But afterwards, when he realized that his beloved wife Esther and also Mordechai, the man who had saved his life, were both Jewish, the king switched to befriending and being a patron of the Jews and abandoned his earlier plan.

Amalek acted similarly to Haman.  Amalek stood to gain nothing from attacking the Israelites.  They did not want to conquer land (after all, the attack took place in the wilderness) or obtain some other objective.  Amalek was motivated solely by a desire to destroy Israel, taking advantage of the Israelites being “famished and weary.”

This is the deep significance of Parashat Zakhor.  It is crucial for us to understand that anti-Semitism manifests itself in two ways.  Regular anti-Semites, like Pharaoh and Ahasuerus, can be overcome by bribery or other means.  If they can be persuaded that not harming the Jews will be to their benefit, then one can reach an accord with them.  But with purist anti-Semites, such as Haman and Amalek, no ploy is of any avail.  For this type of anti-Semite, destroying Jews is their object in life.

In the previous generation there arose an anti-Semite by the name of Hitler who succeeded in bringing about the annihilation of six million Jews.  The vast majority of the Jews of Europe mistakenly thought Hitler was a regular anti-Semite, and that therefore it would be possible to find a way of surviving under his rule.  Most of the Jews did not understand that they were dealing with a purist anti-Semite, like Haman, and for this mistake the Jewish people paid dearly.

This message is so very important that every year we gather together to hear it anew, in order to assure that when another foe like Haman comes on the scene the Jewish people will not mistake his nature, for otherwise the cost of their mistake could be beyond bearing.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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