The Amalekian worldview, as epitomised by Haman, is that life is meaningless, nothing has purpose, things “just happen”. The word “Purim” itself, which means “lots”, refers to this force of randomness and meaninglessness that the Jewish people of the time were up against. On Purim, therefore, we celebrate meaning itself. We celebrate the defeat of cynicism and mockery and we embrace – full-heartedly, uproariously – holiness and meaning, commitment and purpose, direction and destiny.
This week is a special Shabbos: it’s called Shabbos Zachor, on which we fulfil 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 the parsha of Ki Teitzei, 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) and Amalek – Haman is a direct descendant of the nation of Amalek. Yisrael and Amalek represent two contrasting worldviews with two diametrically opposed perspectives on what life is all about.
The key to unlocking this discussion is found in a single word. The verse describes how Amalek “chanced upon you on the way…” (Devarim, 25:17). The word used here is korchecha. Amalek launched one of the first recorded terrorist attacks in history, attacking the stragglers of the Jewish people, the weaker, more vulnerable members of the nation who lagged behind, causing terror and mayhem.
But what does this word korchecha actually mean? Rashi outlines various interpretations. One interpretation is that it is derived from the word mikrei, “coincidence”. This captures the cynical Amalekite worldview precisely, that everything happens by chance, that nothing has essential meaning or importance and life has no purpose or grand design.
However, the Torah tells us that G-d created a world that is perfect by design. He designed a world with purpose. And He guides the world towards that purpose. Nothing happens haphazardly.
So, these are the two different opposing worldviews – the Amalek worldview based on random chance and coincidence, and the Torah worldview based on purpose and design. We see the Torah worldview in effect throughout the Megillah. On the surface, it’s a story of political intrigue – how Haman tried to inflict genocide on the Jewish people with an elaborate plan; how, using his influence on the king, he managed to get the king’s approval on a decree calling for their destruction; and finally, how that decree was 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 guiding hand in orchestrating these events. G-d’s name is not mentioned in the Megillah, yet His Presence is felt throughout – beginning with the removal of Vashti as Achashverosh’s queen right at the beginning, to be replaced by Esther. Esther was already positioned as queen before Haman’s decree was issued, so she was able to intervene and save the Jewish people, turning Haman’s plan on its head.
One of the lessons of the Megillah is that we need to see G-d’s Hand in the workings of history, and in our own lives. There are revealed miracles and there are concealed miracles. Purim is all about the hidden miracles. That’s why, explains the Gemara, the name “Esther” itself means “hidden”. The Purim story teaches us that nothing happens in this world by pure coincidence; that though G-d’s Hand is hidden, everything is part of His design.
The hidden Hallel
This idea of G-d’s hiddenness is expressed in another interesting way: on Purim, we do not say Hallel. Hallel makes up the great prayers of thanksgiving and praise, 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. Why would we not recite Hallel on Purim?
The Gemara answers that the Megillah itself stands in for Hallel on Purim. But a debate arises among the great rabbinic authorities – what happens if you don’t have a Megillah on Purim morning? Should you then say Hallel?
The Meiri holds that if you don’t have a Megillah, you should indeed say Hallel. But the vast majority of rabbinic authorities hold – and the halacha accords with them – 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 – the Megillah. It’s considered inappropriate to say the revealed Hallel for a hidden miracle.
Thus, the message of the Megillah is that 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. When Mordechai asks Esther to intervene with 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.” (Megillah Esther, 4:13)
Mordechai is saying to Esther that G-d’s plan is to save the Jewish people. He has a sacred covenant with the Jewish people, so there is no way they can be entirely wiped out. Haman’s genocidal plan would never come to fruition. The question, says Mordechai, is will she be a part of that plan or not? This was Esther’s opportunity to make history, to play a momentous role in the unfolding of G-d’s plan. But if she chose not to, it would still go ahead.
Once again, the message of the Megillah is that G-d has a plan. And more than that, we are part of that plan. It is our responsibility to do our mitzvot – our good deeds – as part of G-d’s plan. There is design and purpose in the mission that we have been given by G-d, each according to our own circumstances. And at every opportunity we get to fulfil that mission, each one of us should hear the words of Mordechai ringing in our ears: “And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position.” (Megillah Esther, 4:14)
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 – he has positioned us to do good deeds, to make the lives of the people around us better, to serve Him with all our heart and bring honour to His name. This is the message of Purim: G-d has a plan and we are part of that plan. We are not like Amalek, who believe only in random chance – we believe in a world of purpose and meaning and mission.
That’s possibly how Purim gets its name – it means “the casting of lots”. How did Haman decide to destroy the Jewish people? He cast lots to determine the day – in a random fashion. He showed he didn’t care; he didn’t believe in a purpose or a plan. It was all a matter of chance.
But the Jews took that very day chosen by the lots for their destruction and realigned it with G-d’s Divine plan.
A drop in temperature
There is another explanation in Rashi for the term asher korchecha – he says it can also be derived from the word kor, “coldness”. When the Jewish people left Egypt amid “great signs and wonders”, everyone was in awe of the Jewish people. Not one of the nations in the surrounding region dared come close. Yet Amalek, by launching that first attack, destroyed their aura of invincibility. They cooled the waters so others could climb in. By doing so, they also undermined the lofty purpose and special status of the Jewish people, which is another strategy behind the philosophy of Amalek.
There is a very interesting verse in 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 reveals our values.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner takes this a step further. You can praise the wrong things or you can praise the right things. But, he says, there is a worldview that is much more sinister – where nothing is praiseworthy. The ultimate coldness. It’s all empty and meaningless; nothing has 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 devoid of meaning; and the way we choose to live our lives in this is similarly meaningless.
By contrast, the Torah teaches that everything is infused with meaning. Every action we do, no matter how seemingly trivial, has cosmic importance. What we say, what we do, what we think, what we eat, how we act – these are of tremendous importance. The whole Torah is founded on the importance of how we live our lives.
Purim comes to reconnect us with our purpose. We read in the Megillah how, in the wake of the destruction of Amalek, when the Jewish people rise up and defend themselves against a genocidal threat, a spiritual revolution sweeps 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 aspect of Torah. “Light” refers to the learning of Torah; “joy” refers to Yom Tov; “celebration” refers to the mitzvah of brit milah (circumcision); and “glory” refers to the mitzvah of tefillin. The struggle with Amalek spiritually reinvigorated the Jewish people, reigniting a passion for life and life’s purpose. And in the end, the Amalek worldview was defeated.
Rav Hutner contrasts the concept of hillul, praise, with chillul, which is to empty something of meaning (it also means a hole). Chillul is also the opposite of kodesh, holiness, which means to ascribe importance to things. A chillul is when people scoff and mock and deplete the value of valuable things in this world. And that’s why the Ramchal, in Mesillat Yesharim, writes that a scoffer is like someone armed with a shield coated in oil. You cannot penetrate that shield. All the arrows fired at it are deflected. Nothing can get through to a person with such an anarchic worldview.
Purim, on the other hand, is about the celebration – the affirmation – of purpose and design, meaning and holiness. On Purim, we celebrate the ultimate victory – the victory of our values.