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Purim: Peering Behind the Mask

holidays video Feb 25, 2021


After an overwhelming week at work, Daniel decides to go on a nature hike to recharge. Without letting anyone know of his plans, he heads off into the mountains. As he is enjoying the view and the peaceful quiet around him, he suddenly slips and tumbles off the edge of a cliff. He plunges downwards, but somehow manages to grasp onto a branch jutting out of the cliff face. He clings to the branch for dear life, trying not to look down at the ravine below.

As his life flashes before his eyes, he is struck by a disheartening thought: "I am alone. Nobody knows I am here, and I have no way of escaping. I am going to die." He begins to take stock of his life, thinking about the good times he’s had and what he has managed to accomplish in his short existence. He thinks about his family, and how much they are going to miss him. Just then, a rope soars past his head, hanging directly in front of him. After a moment's shock, he grabs the rope and holds on for dear life as someone on the other end begins to pull him up over the cliff edge.

As Daniel reaches the top, he is still gasping and amazed at the fact that he just survived. He immediately asks the man who saved him, "How did you know that I was hanging off the edge of the cliff and needed rescuing?" The man stares back at him blankly and says, "I didn't. This morning, I randomly decided to practice throwing ropes over cliff faces."

There are two reactions that Daniel can have to this series of events. He can recognize the miracle that just occurred, thanking God for sending him salvation when all hope seemed lost. Or, he can laugh at the unlikely coincidence that this man decided to practice rope-throwing the same exact day that he fell over a cliff face, thankful that he happened to get lucky this time.

This is the exact decision we face in every moment and aspect of life, and this theme runs through the entire Purim story.


The Battle Against Amalek


As we experience Purim and our victory over Haman, let us delve deeper into the unique spiritual and existential battle that the Jewish People must continue to wage against the philosophy of Amalek. Amalek first appeared on the scene when they attacked the Jewish People in the midbar (desert), on their way to Har Sinai. The most striking aspect of this attack was its timing. Hashem had just performed the makkos (plagues) and split the Yam Suf (Red Sea) for the Jewish People, acts that had worldwide reverberations. The Jewish People were viewed as invincible, untouchable. And exactly at this moment, Amalek chose to attack the Jewish People, undertaking a (practically) suicidal battle with zero provocation. What was their motivation in undertaking such a mission? This question can be extended to the Purim story as well. Haman, suddenly promoted to second in command, makes it his mission to wipe out the entire Jewish People. As a descendant of Amalek, he is clearly continuing their legacy of Jewish obliteration. Why is it that, throughout history, people have made it their singular focus to wipe out the Jewish People?[1] And why is this the spiritual legacy of Amalek? In order to answer this question, we must examine the fundamental principles of Jewish belief.[2]


Three Fundamental Principles


  • The first fundamental principle of Jewish belief is that Hashem is the Creator of the world. He is the Source of time, space, and all of existence.
  • The second principle is that Hashem has a direct relationship with this physical world. This is the concept of hashgacha (Divine providence), that Hashem oversees and controls the events of this world.
  • The third fundamental principle is that there is a purpose to this world and our lives within it. There is not a single aspect of life that is random, rather each and every occurrence and interaction is part of an infinitely beautiful grand plan, a cosmic symphony, a masterpiece designed by Hashem.


While Amalek does not tend to focus on the first of these principles, their entire existence is devoted towards destroying the second and third of these principles. Amalek claims that although Hashem may exist, He has absolutely no connection to us or our world. Our lives are therefore meaningless, and this world is devoid of spirituality.


This destructive conviction is embodied in the pasuk describing Amalek's attack on the Jewish People. As we read in Parshas Zachor, we must remember what Amalek did to us: "ashar korcha baderech" - how they "happened" upon us while we were traveling.[3] The word korcha is peculiar, and Rashi therefore quotes three interpretations of this word, each fundamental and significant.


1- Randomness and Happenstance


The first explanation of the word “korcha” is based on its connection to the word "karah"- happenstance. This interpretation reflects Amalek's claim that everything in this world is random and meaningless. There is no hashgacha, no Divine providence. Anything that happens to you, whether bad or good, has no deeper meaning or significance behind it. Amalek implied that they just "happened" to be here with swords in hand, ready for battle, they simply "chanced" upon the Jewish People as they were on the way. 


This is the exact approach that Haman took when plotting to kill the Jews. He did not rationally calculate a date on which to kill the Jews, rather he specifically chose one through a pur, a lottery. A lottery represents and embodies randomness and chance. Haman let the luck of the draw determine when he would kill the Jews, an act of devotion to "karah" (happenstance). The gematria (numerical value) of Amalek is safek (doubt). Amalek represents doubt and uncertainty, randomness and chaos.


2- Keri: Spiritual Marriage


The second interpretation offered by Rashi connects the word "korcha" to "keri", a concept linked to marital impurity.Judaism views marriage as a lofty mitzvah; the relationship between husband and wife holds incredible spiritual potential. The Ramban explains that the relationship between man and wife ideally reflects the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People. It is a relationship of spiritual and existential oneness, where potential is developed and actualized.


Amalek, however, claims that marriage is no more than animalistic mating, a relationship devoid of higher meaning and spirituality. Perhaps the reason for this is rooted in Amalek's very conception. Amalek was the result of Eliphaz's relationship with his concubine, Timnah.[4] Unlike Jewish marriage, which is rooted in a devoted and loving commitment, a concubine reflects a purely physical relationship, lacking the spiritual components of true marriage. The very nature of Amalek's creation became their national ethos. Amalek has divorced the physical from the spiritual, viewing the physical as detached from any higher spiritual source. The physical urges of man are the ultimate motivation in this world, as there is nothing deeper to the world or human interaction than its physical facade.


The name Amalek shares its root with the word melikah, which is the process of removing the head from the body of a bird before it is offered as a sacrifice. The head is the highest part of the body, representing the mind and the spiritual; the body is the lower part, representing the physical. Ideally, the two are harmoniously connected[5]. Amalek attempts to disconnect the head from the body, to disconnect the spiritual (head) from the physical (body), claiming that there is no spirituality within the physical world, no meaning, no connection to Hashem or anything higher.


3- Kor: Cooling the Flame


Rashi's third explanation of the word "korcha" is based on a midrash that relates the word to "kor" (cold). The midrash describes the mashal of a boiling hot bath of water that nobody dares jump into for fear of being scalded. Along comes a man and boldly jumps into the boiling water, severely burning himself in the process. Although he burned himself, he has now cooled the water enough to allow others to follow suit and jump in as well.


This is what Amalek did as the Jewish People traveled from Egypt to Har Sinai. After Hashem performed the ten makkos (plagues) and took the Jewish People out of Egypt, Hashem’s providence was flamingly clear in the world. The nations of the world were ready to accept Hashem and His Torah, and they began flocking towards Har Sinai to join the Jewish People in accepting the Torah.[6] The Jewish People were at the height of their success, about to receive the Torah, and the other nations were ready to accept the Torah along with them. At this point, Amalek attacked the Jewish People, undertaking a nearly suicidal mission. Although the Jewish People won, Amalek showed the other nations that the Jews were not as invincible as they seemed. They "jumped into the scalding bath" - attacked the Jewish People, and "cooled the waters"- showed the other nations that the Jewish People were vulnerable to attack. Why did Amalek do this? Why were they willing to burn themselves simply to weaken the Jewish People? 


The Philosophy of Amalek


Amalek rejects Hashem’s connection to this world, or any connection between the spiritual and the physical. Essentially, Amalek denies Hashem's control of this world and the ability for man to uplift himself to the level of the spiritual. Torah is the epitome of both of these principles and provides the guidelines for how to achieve this spiritual elevation. It is based on the axiom of Hashem's connection with this world, and it is the means for elevating ourselves and all of physicality to a higher purpose. Amalek stands in direct opposition to this, and when they saw that not only the Jewish People, but the entire world, was ready to adopt the Torah way of life, they had no choice but to attack. Amalek's entire existence is predicated on a lack of connection between Hashem and this world, therefore a complete acceptance of that principle by all the nations of the world would mean the cessation of Amalek's existence.[7]


Amalek attacked the Jewish People in order to prevent Matan Torah, to stop the world from accepting Hashem's Torah and the truth that lies within it. And although Amalek was sorely beaten, with only a few survivors, they still managed to slay a few Jewish warriors. They showed that the Jews were not invincible, "cooling" down the excitement of all the nations of the world and paralyzing their readiness to accept the Torah.


Amalek Won. Physically, they lost, but in a deeper way, they won. The nations of the world walked away, turning down the opportunity to accept Hashem and His Torah.[8]


Ha'Min Ha'Eitz: The Source of Haman


The essence of Haman, the person who most potently expressed the characteristics and mission of Amalek, is revealed in a very strange discussion in the Gemara.[9] The Gemara asks, "Where is Haman found in the Torah?" Before we discuss the Gemara's answer, it is essential that we fully understand the nature of this question. After all, Haman was a man, not a halachic principle, so why is it important to find a source for Haman in the Torah?


Torah is not simply a guide to living a life of truth, it is the blueprint and DNA of this physical world. In other words, our physical world is a projection and emanation of the deep spiritual reality described in the Torah. This is the meaning behind the famous midrash that says, "Istakel b'Oraisah u'barah almah," Hashem peered into the Torah and used it to create the world.[10] Torah is the blueprint of the world - the physical world is an emanation and expression of Torah, the spiritual root of existence.


To illustrate this concept, imagine a projector. The image that you see on the screen emanates from the film in the projector, so that everything you see on the screen is simply an expression of what is contained within the film. So too, every single thing that we see and experience in the physical world stems from the spiritual world - the transcendent dimension of Torah.[11] This is what the Gemara means by "Where is Haman found in the Torah?" Haman's spiritual root as well must be found within the Torah, and by understanding this source, we can understand his spiritual nature and purpose.


The Gemara answers: "Ha'min ha'eitz"- Ha’min shares the letters as Haman. Right after Adam and Chava sinned, they were embarrassed, so they hid behind a bush. Hashem then asks them, "Ha'min ha'eitz- did you eat from the tree?"[12]Let us try to understand the profound meaning of this Gemara.


Before Adam sinned, he was on an angelic level, almost perfect. He saw reality through a crystal-clear lens, his body itself was transcendent, and he lived in the spiritual realm of Gan Eden. However, once Adam sinned, his entire existence, his body, and the world itself fell to a lower, incomparably more physical level. The physical no longer revealed the spiritual; it now hid it instead. Once he ate from the eitz ha'da'as, his spiritual vision became distorted, he became confused. At this point, he does the impossible: he hides from Hashem. The problem is obvious: how can Adam expect to hide from Hashem? He knows fully well that this is impossible, but he does so because he is confused. Evil and doubt have become mixed into his very self. While he knows this behavior is ridiculous, a small voice of doubt within him whispers, "maybe it is possible to hide from Hashem."[13] In fact, it was the very shame and embarrassment of having eaten from the eitz ha'da'as that made him want to hide from Hashem. He was hiding from the truth, from the consequences of his actions.


However, deep down, Adam hoped that Hashem would come and tell him that everything will be okay, that Adam would be able to recreate the closeness to Hashem that he previously possessed, that everything would go back to the way it was. This was the true pain of Hashem's response: "Ayekah - where are you?". "Ha'min ha'eitz," did you eat from the tree? The moment Adam acts as if Hashem can't see him, the moment he relates to Hashem with doubt and uncertainty, Hashem responds in kind. This is because Hashem relates to us in exactly the way we relate to him. As the pasuk says, "Hashem tzilchah," Hashem is your shadow.[14] However you relate to Hashem, He will mirror[15].


Ayekah, a question of doubt and uncertainty, would become the foundation for all of history. Ayekah has the same shoresh as "Eichah", the Megillah we read describing the destruction of the Jewish People’s connection with Hashem. Our destruction is the direct result of denying Hashem’s connection to the world, acting as if He does not see what occurs here. The question of "Ha'min ha'eitz" is the source of Haman, the source of Amalek, the source of all doubt and uncertainty in this world. Hashem asks, "Did you eat from the tree?", as if He does not know. It is this question itself that represents the gap between us and Hashem, a gap that Amalek battles to keep open, a gap that the Jewish People must forever strive to close.


Why Isn't Hashem Mentioned in the Megillah?


Megilas Esther is unique in that it is one of the only books in Tanach in which Hashem's name is not mentioned.[16]This is because Purim marks a transition in history, when our battle against Amalek manifested in a new form. Until Purim, history was permeated with consistent open miracles, nevuah (prophecy) was common, and Hashem was openly revealed in the world. 


The second stage, ushered in by Purim, is characterized by hidden miracles. In our present world, Hashem is no longer openly manifest and clearly visible. In this stage, we must choose to see Hashem within the darkness, to peer past the façade of a meaningless world. It is in this stage that Amalek's claims are all the more tempting to believe, as it is so easy to ignore Hashem's involvement in this world. Our challenge is to see past the surface, to see the miraculous within the natural, the ethereal within the mundane, the infinite within the finite.


Our Spiritual Battle 


Amalek fights for a God-less reality, devoid of spirituality and meaning: a world of Haman and “Ha’min ha’eitz”, of doubt, where a gap exists between us and Hashem. Only when you look closer, deepening your gaze, do you see the deeper layer of reality, the transcendent root. Hashem is echad - one - and our goal is to see the spiritual oneness inherent within every event and object in this world. Amalek seeks to hide the truth, to disconnect us from our Source, and thus to strip all meaning from life. Only when we see past the surface, when we trace everything that happens in this world back to Hashem- our spiritual Source, will we ultimately defeat Amalek and all that they stand for.


[1] The Nazis are just one of many recent examples.

[2] These three principles are based on the thirteen ikarei emunah (principles of faith) delineated by the Rambam in his commentary on Perek Chelek in Sanhedrin.

[3] Devarim 25:18.

[4] Bereishis 36:12.

[5] And the head (spiritual) influences the outer expression of the body (physical).

[6] The Ramchal explains at the end of Derech Hashem that until the Torah was given, any nation could have joined Klal Yisrael

[7] It is for this reason that in the times of Mashiach, all the nations of the world will exist, except for Amalek. This is simply middah kineged middah (measure for measure): Amalek attempted to cut Hashem off from this world, which would have resulted in the cessation of all existence. Thus, at the end of days, they will get “their wish,” and they alone will cease to exist.

[8] One of the most dangerous things a person can do is cool off someone's passion and fire for avodas Hashem (service of Hashem). Once life becomes practical and mundane, everything begins to wither away. This is what Amalek represents: cooling the flame. For this reason, the middah (attribute) of Amalek is mockery and sarcasm. Sarcasm is the tool we use to distance ourselves from truth. When something is too much for us to handle, we respond with sarcasm, creating an internal wall that allows us to distance ourselves from this truth, refusing to confront it. A single sarcastic comment can mitigate the impact of the most moving and inspiring speech.

[9] Chulin 139b.

[10] Bereishis Rabbah 1:1.

[11] For a deeper understanding of the relationship between the physical and spiritual world, and how to relate to the infinite through the finite, see chapter on Parshas Vayishlach, section: “Avraham’s Revelation”; see the prologue of this sefer as well.

[12] Bereishis 3:11.

[13] Before Adam ate from the eitz ha’da’as (tree of knowledge), the evil inclination (the snake) spoke to Adam from outside of himself. Once Adam ate from the eitz ha’da’as, evil became connected to his inner self, his inner mind and values. As such, evil now speaks within us; sometimes, the voice inside our own head, that which we might think of when we say “I”, is actually the voice of the yetzer hara (evil inclination). The word for connection in Hebrew is da’as. Eating from the eitz hada’as connected evil to Adam’s very self, intertwined it into his identity. Now, we must overcome evil from within.

[14] Tehillim 121:5.

[15] Nefesh Ha'Chaim 1:7.

[16] This is also the case for Shir Ha’Shirim, which is one of the reasons why there is much discussion about who the story of Shir Ha’Shirim refers to.


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