Our understanding of Purim can be enhanced through a deeper comprehension of Amalek and Yisrael – two completely opposing world views and belief systems.
This week is a special Shabbos: it’s called Shabbos Zachor, which speaks about the mitzvah of remembering what Amalek did to us on the way out of Egypt.
We read the Maftir, which comes at the end of Parsha Ki Seitzei, which says: “Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt.” (25:17)
This is read on the Shabbos before Purim, and it helps us frame what the festival of Purim is all about. At the heart of Purim is the conflict between Yisrael (the Jewish people) on the one hand, and Amalek on the other hand – because Haman is a direct descendant and member of the nation of Amalek. By reading this special Maftir, we can frame our understanding of Purim through the prism of Amalek versus Yisrael, which are actually two world views and two clashing philosophies. By understanding both Amalek and Yisrael’s philosophies of the world, we can recognise what these two different philosophies say about life and our purpose on this earth – who we are and where we come from.
That’s what the Maftir reminds us. And the clue to understanding this is essentially contained in just one word. The next verse says: “Remember what Amalek did to you… that he attacked you on the way.” It uses the word korchecha. They ‘attacked’ those who were the stragglers, those who were weak; they attacked them on their way out of Egypt. In essence, Amalek launched the very first recorded terrorist attack in human history, when they attacked the weak and the vulnerable and murdered people only for the sake of causing terror and mayhem. And it’s described that they were “asher korchecha baderech”.
What does this word korchecha actually mean? In unlocking the meaning of this word, we can truly understand the philosophy of Amalek and what that means versus the philosophy of the Jewish people.
Rashi shares different interpretations. In one interpretation, he says korchecha comes from the Hebrew word mikrei, which means “coincidence”. So when you read the verse, you understand that they “chanced upon you on the way”. But what does this mean? This, in fact, explains the philosophy of Amalek. In the world of Amalek, everything is by chance; it’s random. There is no purpose, there is no design. It just occurs, it’s by coincidence.
However, the Torah is all about the fact that G-d created the world. He designed the world, and He created it with a particular purpose in mind. He guides the world and has a plan for the world. There is a framework, and nothing just happens in a haphazard way in this world.
So, there are two different philosophies. The one is a philosophy based on random coincidence, and the other is a philosophy based on purpose and design. And the latter is the Torah way – a philosophy based on purpose and design. That, in essence, is what the Megillah is about. When we read the Megillah on Purim, one of the key messages is how G-d’s hand guided the events that took place. Haman tried to perpetrate genocide against the Jewish people and he set out the most elaborate plan in order to do so. He was influential with the king and managed to get the king’s approval in issuing a decree for the genocide of the Jewish people. But, miraculously, that decree was then undone through the intervention of Mordechai and Esther.
But, what is not stated throughout the Megillah, though it’s there all the time, is G-d’s presence in guiding events. G-d’s name is not mentioned in the Megillah, yet His hand is felt throughout this series of events – beginning with the removal of Vashti as Achashverosh’s queen right at the beginning of the Megillah, to be replaced by Esther. Esther was already positioned as queen before the decree of Haman was issued to the kingdom, so she was able to intervene and save the Jewish people, turning Haman’s plan on its head.
One of the messages of the Megillah is that we need to see Hashem’s hand in its hidden way. There are revealed miracles and there are concealed miracles. Purim is all about the hidden miracles of G-d; how He guides history and He guides events, and nothing happens in this world by pure coincidence. Everything is part of His design. Everything is part of a purpose and a plan that Hashem has for the world.
That’s why, when the Gemara explains the name ‘Esther’, it says: “Where is the name Esther hinted to in the Torah itself?” And it says: “It is hinted to in the verse, which says: ‘And on that day, I will hide My face.’” The word ‘Esther’ means hidden – it refers to and reflects on G-d’s hidden interaction with the world. G-d hides himself in this world, yet His presence is felt everywhere. The Megillah is all about G-d’s concealment, while never forgetting His hand is in everything, guiding events from behind the scenes.
The hidden Hallel
This is also expressed in another interesting way: on Purim, we do not say Hallel. The Gemara debates the reason for this. Hallel makes up the great prayers of thanksgiving and praise to G-d, which we say on Chanukah and other yom tovim. We give thanks to G-d for everything He has done for us and for all His great miracles. Yet, Hallel is not recited on Purim. But why not?
The Gemara answers that a different kind of Hallel is said on Purim, through the reading of the Megillah. The Megillah reading represents a recitation of Hallel. But a debate arises among the great rabbinic authorities – what happens if you don’t have a Megillah on Purim morning? For some reason, you are in a place where there is no Megillah and you can’t fulfil this mitzvah. Do you now say Hallel? Surely if the Megillah replaces the saying of Hallel, if you don’t have a Megillah, you should say Hallel?
This is, in fact, the opinion of the Meiri. The Meiri holds that if you don’t have a Megillah, you must say Hallel. But the vast majority of rabbinic authorities hold – which is how we hold – that you do not say Hallel, even if you do not have a Megillah. Rav Yitzchak Hutner explains this is because it’s a fundamentally different kind of Hallel. For revealed miracles, we say a revealed Hallel; for a hidden miracle like Purim, we say a hidden Hallel. It’s considered inappropriate to say the revealed Hallel for a hidden miracle and, therefore, we refrain from doing so.
Thus, the message of the Megillah is reiterated – G-d is in control of this world and we need to trust Him. He has a plan and nothing happens by coincidence. This is revealed in one of the most powerful speeches in the Megillah. During the moment when Mordechai asks Esther to intervene, to go to the king, Esther says she is unable to do so because he hasn’t called her, and if she comes before him unsolicited, then she may face the death penalty. What is she to do?
Mordechai tells Esther:
“Do not imagine in your soul that you will be able to escape in the king’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time that you attained the royal position.” (4:13 – Megillah Esther)
Mordechai is saying to Esther that G-d has a plan, and that plan includes saving the Jewish people. He made a promise and a covenant, so there is no way the Jewish people can be entirely wiped out. Haman’s plan was for the complete genocide of the Jewish people, but that can’t be. So Mordechai says to Esther that a plan is being made in heaven, and the Jewish people will be saved. The question is: will she be a part of the plan or not?
Once again, the message of the Megillah is that G-d has a plan. And more than that, we fit into that plan. It’s our responsibility to do our mitzvos – our good deeds – as part of Hashem’s plan. We have the free choice to participate or not. But, ultimately, G-d’s plan will be accomplished. Mordechai was telling Esther that this was her opportunity to make history and to do something great and significant. But he made it clear that she shouldn’t think that if she didn’t do it, it would not get done. G-d planned it, therefore it would be achieved – however, this was her big opportunity.
Mordechai’s message to Esther was: we live in a world that is guided by G-d, and in that, there is design and purpose in the events as they unfold. There is design and purpose in the mission that we have been given by G-d, each according to our own circumstances. And each one of us should hear the words of Mordechai in our ears, when he says: “And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position.” (4:14 – Megillah Esther)
Each one of us is placed in a particular position in life, and we need to realise that G-d has put us exactly where He wants us in order to do something good, to make the lives of the people around us better, to serve Him better, and to bring honour to His name. We have that opportunity all the time, and we need to think of ourselves as part of this Divine plan in which we have a role to play. The message of Purim and the Megillah is extended, so we understand that G-d has a plan, and that we are part of that plan. And that further emphasises the clash in world views between Amalek, the world of random coincidence, versus Yisrael, of the Torah, which is a philosophy of design and purpose and that everything we do is purpose-driven.
That’s possibly one reason why the festival of Purim gets its name, because it means ‘the casting of lots’. How did Haman decide to destroy the Jewish people? He cast lots – in a random fashion. He showed he didn’t care, he didn’t believe in a purpose or a plan. It was all random. He cast lots and whatever date the lots fell out on would be the date of the genocide, because he believed in the philosophy of Amalek: “We chance upon you on your way.” We believe in coincidence. So this was just pure, random coincidence, and he wanted to destroy the Jews through random coincidence, with no meaning to this destruction.
But the Jews converted those lots on Purim into the Divine Plan of Hashem. And that’s our message – we need to take the lots of ‘coincidence’, of ‘randomness’, and turn them into part of Hashem’s plan, and to believe in Hashem’s plan, and to participate in Hashem’s plan.
A drop in temperature
There is another explanation in Rashi for the term asher korchecha, which comes from the Hebrew word kor, which means ‘coldness’. This is interesting because it says Amalek cooled down the atmosphere. When the Jewish people left Egypt, everyone was in awe of the Jewish people. Not one of the nations in the surrounding region dared to even attack the Jewish people. Yet Amalek, once they launched that first attack, destroyed that aura of invincibility of Am Yisrael – the Jewish people. They managed to drain the importance and special status of the Jewish people from the world, which is another strategy behind the philosophy of Amalek.
There is a very interesting verse in the Book of Proverbs, which says: “You can tell a person according to their praise.”The simple explanation of this verse means you can infer a lot about a person’s character by how people praise them: “Each person according to their praise.” But Rabbeinu Yona says the verse actually means: “You can tell a lot about a person by what they praise and who they praise.” What we praise and who we praise in this world tells us about our values. Whatever we choose and think is great, tells us what we value in this world. If you really want to know a person, see who they praise and what they praise in life.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner takes this one step further within the realm of praise. You can praise the wrong things or you can praise the right things. But, he says, there is a world philosophy that is much more sinister, which says nothing is praiseworthy. It’s all empty and meaningless; it has no purpose or importance. It doesn’t matter what you do, say, think or eat – it’s all irrelevant because the world is completely random and empty of meaning; and the way we choose to live our lives in this world has no importance. By contrast, the Torah teaches that it has tremendous importance.
And this philosophy of Amalek is “coldness”, to drain all the heat from this world, to say there is nothing of importance. Whereas the Torah view is that everything is created in G-d’s image. Every human being is an entire world. What we say, what we do, what we think, how we act – these are of tremendous importance. The food we eat is important. The words we say – whether we speak lashen hara, talking negatively about another person – are important to G-d. It’s important to G-d what we say. It’s important to G-d what we eat, it’s important to G-d what we learn, what we think, how we conduct ourselves.
The whole Torah is built on the importance of how we live our lives. That is what the word kedusha – holiness – means. It means to attribute importance to things. And the philosophy of Yisrael and the Torah is that everything in life has potential importance, and we need to treat it with the significance it deserves, whereas the philosophy of Amalek is that everything is devoid of meaning, it has no purpose. These two philosophies are actually connected to one another: if you believe in a world that is random and coincidental then you will also believe in a world that has no meaning or importance, and that the things we do have no great value. Purim comes to reconnect us with the value of who we are and what we want.
That’s why it’s so interesting that, after the destruction of Amalek, which we read about in the Megillah of Purim, where the Jewish people rose up and defended themselves against the attacks of genocide, ultimately achieving victory, a spiritual revolution swept the people. It says: “To the Jewish people, there was light and joy and celebration and glory.” And our sages explain from the Gemara that these phrases each refer to a different part of the Torah. Light refers to the learning of Torah, and the words of joy and celebration refer to yom tov and the mitzvah of brit milah – circumcision – and v’yikar refers to the mitzvah of tefillin. There was a spiritual revolution among the people, because they were re-inspired with the importance of life and the importance of our actions because of the spiritual struggle against Amalek. And when Amalek was defeated, the forces of light and goodness, of purpose and design and meaning, were reinvigorated. That’s where the struggle was felt.
Rav Hutner says there is a concept of hillul, which is praise, and then there is chillul, which is emptying – to empty something of all meaning. It’s actually the opposite of kodesh – holiness – that is chol, which can also mean a hole, where something is empty of all of its meaning. And when people scoff and mock and say there is no importance to anything, then it destroys and depletes the value of everything in this world. And that’s why the Mesillat Yesharim writes that a scoffer, a person who mocks important, valuable things – mitzvos and the good deeds we do in this world – and who sees no importance in it, he’s like a person who has a shield with oil on it. You cannot penetrate that shield. All the arrows fired at it are deflected, because that person doesn’t see the importance and the value of life itself, and of our actions, and how meaningful and important it is how we choose to lead our lives.
That’s what Purim is all about – the celebration and the affirmation of purpose, design, meaning, significance and holiness. That is the ultimate victory – it’s the victory of our values that we celebrate on Purim.