ERASING THAT NAME
R’ EPHRAIM KENIG
HOW DO WE WIPE OUT AMALEK TODAY?
ON PURIM, we are commanded to “remember what Amalek did to you” and to “erase the memory of Amalek.” How is this relevant to us today? The account of the war with Amalek is not merely a historical chronicle of a one-time event, but rather a description of an ongoing war from generation to generation. It is a conflict that exists in creation until the coming of Mashiach, when the name of Amalek will be completely and utterly erased. However, until then we have the job of fighting this arch-enemy.
The war with Amalek is mentioned twice in the Torah. It occurs once in Parshat B’shalach and another time in Parshat Ki Teitzei, which is read in synagogue on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim. Within these two sections, we infer two ways of how to deal with Amalek.
Parshat Ki Teitzei begins with the Hebrew word zachor—“Remember what Amalek did to you” (Deut. 25:17). It ends with the words al tishkach—“don’t forget” (ibid. 25:19). We thus have a double warning: remember and don’t forget, indicating a strong directive to do our part in erasing Amalek from under the heavens. Elsewhere we see that God, too, has a part in the war with Amalek. In Parshat Zachor, God says to Moses “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek.” We see how the war is fought from two directions, one from our side, and the other from God, as it were.
God’s part in the war is articulated through the verse, “The hand is on HaShem’s Throne: G-d wages war with Amalek for all generations” (Exod. 17:16). Rashi points out that the Hebrew word for throne as written here (כס) should actually be written with an aleph at the end (כסא). Quoting the Midrash, he explains that it is written with only the first two letters, since God says, “My Throne is not complete…”
When God says, “My throne is not complete…” it means that His Kingship is not complete. The Hebrew term, “HaShem” literally means “the Name.” More specifically it refers to the four-letter Holy Name of God (yud-hey-vav-hey). In the beginning of the verse, “The hand upon the Throne of HaShem,” only the first two letters (yud-hey) are written. Rashi explains that HaShem is indicating that His name will not be whole (i.e., indicated by only the first two letters yud-hey, instead of the full four-letter name) nor His throne complete (signified by כס instead of כסא) until the name of Amalek is utterly blotted out. In other words, as long as Amalek exists, the relationship between God and the Jewish people is considered imperfect.
Quoting the Zohar, Rebbe Nachman teaches that when the Jewish people perfect themselves through their deeds, this perfects their relationship with God. More specifically, it perfects emunah (faith) in God.
This point is illustrated through the war with Amalek during the time of Moses. When Moses would raise his hands, Israel would dominate. When he lowered them to rest, Amalek would dominate. When his hands became too heavy, Aharon and Chur supported them from each side, as it is written, “And his hands were emunah (lit.,”faith”) until the setting of the sun” (Exod. 17:10-13).
When Joshua was sent to wage physical war against Amalek, Moses was immersed in spiritual battle. His hands were outstretched in prayer until the “setting of the sun.” This was one of the times in history when the sun actually stood still in the heavens. In this instance, G-d brought this about to weaken Israel’s arch-enemy. Amalek was a skilled sorcerer who knew how to calculate the exact hour most conducive to prevail against the Jews. Through the power of faith and prayer, Moses influenced the Divine Will, causing the heavenly spheres to make the sun stand still, thus rendering Amalek’s calculations futile. Although Moses actually possessed the power to defeat and annihilate Amalek completely, he prophetically saw it wasn’t yet time. This being the case, he would raise his hands and Israel would dominate; when he rested them, Amalek would dominate. This only weakened Amalek temporarily in order to give him a measure of existence in the world until the time came to erase his memory completely.
“And his hands were emunah” refers to prayer. Rebbe Nachman teaches that this phrase indicates a level of faith attainable by anyone. Even deeper, it highlights a specific strategy in the war against Amalek that is relevant to us today. He points out that there are different kinds of faith. For instance, there is a type of faith confined to the heart. Outside, you might observe people you wouldn’t even suspect as having religious faith. However, upon speaking with them, it is apparent that they do indeed believe in God. Developing the conversation further, they might even say that they have faith in their hearts. This is actually true, and they are satisfied with this level. However, they possess nothing more than this degree of faith, since their faith has not yet spread to every limb of the body. For example, in the case of a male, it hasn’t yet reached his hands to the extent where it obligates him to put on tefillin every day. In other words, perhaps he understands the basic concept of faith, but it simply hasn’t spread to his limbs enough to feel the urgency of the Divine command where the arm itself compels them, “Put tefillin on me! This is why you have an arm!” This is the meaning of faith extending to all the limbs.
Of the 613 mitzvot, 248 are positive commandments. There are also 248 limbs in the human body, each corresponding to a particular mitzvah. A Jew is built in a way that faith should extend throughout the entire human body, from head to toe. If every mitzvah corresponds to a certain limb, it gives us confidence in our ability to fulfill every mitzvah in the Torah because of the compelling force of faith contained in that limb.
There are a number of ways to reach such a level of faith. Based on the teachings of the Arizal, Rebbe Nachman gives one practical example. After netilat yadayim, the ritual washing of the hands in the morning upon awakening, or before eating bread, we should raise our hands to head level, palms opposite the face while slightly to each side, in order to receive the holiness brought about through this deed. However, in order to do this, we need faith in our hands. We must believe that through raising our hands in this manner, we receive holiness, since without faith, nothing will happen. This is alluded to by King David in the Book of Psalms, “all of Your mitzvot are faith” (Psa. 119:86).
King David says to God: “Whatever I do or refrain from doing is because You commanded me. I have faith that You commanded me with 248 positive and 365 negative mitzvot. Despite never having seen You, I believe You exist and commanded us regarding the mitzvot in the Torah via Moses Your servant, and this obligates me.”
When the Arizal says that we should raise our hands in order to receive the holiness, we don’t necessarily feel anything, since it is something spiritual, not material. If we want to receive this holiness, we raise our hands only because of our faith. We simply believe in the words of the Arizal when he says that we receive holiness when we raise our hands after netilat yadayim.
This is important to point out since there are many types of educated people, irrespective of belief, who attempt to analyze various reasons for the mitzvot according to human reason. For example, one with a philosophical mindset who has analyzed tefillin might say, “The tefillin placed on the head is simply a box with four cells, containing a small parchment in each one. You ask him, “So why don’t you put on tefillin?” To which he would say, “What do you know about tefillin? It is the concept of the mind, and I am well aware that the human brain has four lobes. So when the Torah speaks about tefillin, it is obviously referring to the intellect and the structure of the human brain. Thus it says to make this box and put it on one’s head, etc., but this is not the essence of tefillin. How can you think that such a sublime concept as tefillin could be expressed through something as primitive as animal skin?! I have already attained its inner essence intellectually. I don’t need to actually do it!”
Unfortunately, there are countless people who have made an intellectual exercise out of the Torah, which reduces it to nothing. They are convinced they have comprehended the true greatness and significance of the Torah, but it remains only an abstract wisdom lacking any practical expression. This way of thinking is the biggest heresy—which is exactly the Amalek of our generation we are discussing.
If the Torah tells us to do a mitzvah in a particular way, we need to do it exactly that way. It is perfectly acceptable to search for the meaning of the mitzvot, but it must be after one is already bound to the deed itself. When we are immersed in the actual doing, then G-d helps afterward by bestowing an intellectual understanding of the mitzvah. Thus, through the actual performance of the mitzvah, we are able to arrive at the higher levels of intellect and understanding.
According to Rebbe Nachman, faith allows us to ascend intellectually. To the extent we have faith, we are able to attain progressively higher levels of understanding. As understanding reaches our intellect through faith, we begin to grasp what at first we only needed to believe. Increased attachment to the actual doing of the mitzvah, after initially accepting it with faith, brings us to comprehend the mitzvah intellectually. We then rise to the next level of faith higher than our current understanding. It is a process without limit.
“And his hands were emunah.” This was how Moses rose to unlimited heights through perfect faith, which permeated every limb of his body. Here, Moses teaches us a critical element in fighting the war with Amalek. Success in the war depends on faith radiating throughout our entire body, which will compel us to actively serve God. It is not enough to have faith only in our heart. By perfecting faith more and more, we give the war with Amalek over to God. Amalek symbolizes the refusal to allow Godliness to penetrate and sanctify the world. Until Amalek is destroyed, God remains concealed. Neither His Name or throne is complete.
According to the Holy Zohar, when the Jewish people perfect their deeds through faith, it causes a unification of God’s name. This is expressed through the relationship between God and the Jewish people. When this happens, they ascend so high that God’s Throne is considered complete, together with Hashem’s full four-letter name—the essence of fighting the war with Amalek. God’s declaration, “I will utterly erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens,” is a level achieved only with the coming of the Mashiach, when it will be revealed to every eye.
The coming of Mashiach brings a general and total redemption. Certain tzaddikim achieved the level where, from their vantage point, Mashiach had already come. In other words, they had perfected their faith to the extent that, as far as they were concerned, they were already living in the time of Mashiach. There was no difference between their current behavior and how they would act in the messianic age.
It is good to know from Rebbe Nachman that such a level exists and is accessible to us all. My blessing to everyone is that we rededicate ourselves to carrying out the mitzvot with deep faith and a whole heart. This will certainly establish the strong foundation needed to ascend progressively higher until understanding will enlighten our minds enough to illuminate the entire world. Hashem yimloch l’olam va’ed—“God will reign forever and ever.” Amen.♦
Translated and adapted from a talk given from Tsfat to a group in Sydney, Australia. Lesson based on Likutey Moharan 91.
1. Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei
2. Etz Chaim, Sha’ar HaKelalim
3. The ancient sorcerers used celestial configurations to determine astrological influences in the physical world and thereby predict the future of natural occurrences such as success or failure of nations and individuals. They also used methods of channeling celestial energies to influence things here in the physical world. Thus halting the sun frustrated their tactics based on a standard process of nature.
4. Targum Onkelos (ad loc.).
5. Rabbi Chaim Vital, Etz Chaim, Sha’ar 31, chap. 2; Sha’ar HaMitzvot, Eikev, Inyan “Netilat Yadayim.”