This Shabbat is a “special” Shabbat called Shabbat Zachor, in which we recount the tale of Amalek (the leader of a nation of enemies of the ancient Hebrews), how we are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek (Ex. 35:19), and that God will always be at war with Amalek (Ex. 17:16). We remember this on the Shabbat before Purim as Haman, the persecutor in the Purim story, is considered a descendant of Amalek.
But on a certain level, this doesn’t make sense. The text doesn’t say that God will be at war with the descendants of Amalek (bnai amalek), but with Amalek himself, who has personally been dead for thousands of years. And why would God want to be at war with any of His creations for all eternity?
The answer can be found in a deeper understanding of Amalek as both an individual and an archetype. (For an amazing exploration of this, I recommend reading Rabbi Schochet’s fabulous book “Amalek, the Enemy Within.) Amalek, the leader of a nation that attacked the ancient Hebrews, was a scoundrel who attacked from behind, where the weak, old, young, and infirm were (Deut. 25:18). It is this understanding of Amalek that opens up to a teaching and practice that is as important today as it was over 3000 years ago, and helps us understand why we must all always be “at war with Amalek”.
Amalek is the personification of a “perpetrator”, a person that creates victims by attacking the weakest spot. On an individual external level, this is someone who is an abuser: a child abuser; a sexual predator; or anyone who attacks the weak in society. Based on the dictate we remember this Shabbat, we are commanded to always fight to stop these abusers in every way. As a faith tradition based in ethical behavior, it makes perfect sense that we should always combat this type of injustice. But there is also an even deeper teaching that is found in this perpetual war.
As Rabbi Schochet so beautifully teaches, we must also always be at war with the Amalek within ourselves. The part of ourselves that is self-abusive and/or seeks to subjugate others.
What does this mean and how does it play out in our lives? The easiest example is addiction. The weak part of the addict is his desire for the substance, and that substance and its desire is the perpetrator. Every addict in recovery knows that it is a constant and perpetual war against that addiction: one moment at a time and for every moment. Fighting the Amalek within means never letting up in that war for recovery.
But many of us (thank God) aren’t faced with a war against addiction, so how does this teaching affect us?
All of us have a “yetzer hara”, an evil inclination (as opposed to the “yetzer hatov”, the good inclination). We must constantly be vigilant and at war with that yetzer hara. It is the yetzer hara that makes a husband think that he can have an affair if he is out of town (after all he thinks, it won’t really affect his family). It is the yetzer hara that makes one think that it is ok to take towels from a hotel because “they expect to lose a certain number of towels and it’s built into the cost (it’s not, and taking those towels is simply theft). It is our yetzer hara, our inner Amalek, that seeks to justify behavior that we know is wrong, but is easy and gives us an advantage (and yes, that includes cheating on tax forms). The inner Amalek is the part of us that seduces us to do something that may be easy and will benefit us, but which our soul knows is wrong. And we must always, always be at war with that yetzer hara…that Amalek within. Like God, we must never let our guard down and always be involved in this perpetual conflict.
So the next time you feel tempted to do something that may ultimately hurt yourself or another, pause for a moment and think of this war against Amalek that we must always fight….and choose right and righteousness over ease, momentary pleasure, and material gain.
In this week before Purim, we are also to practice mishloach manot, the giving of food and charity. While this is related to how the people of Shushan gave gifts to each other (Megillat Esther 9:22), the deeper reason has again to do with the perpetual war with our yetzer hara. Judaism believes that the practice of giving charity strengthens our good inclination, and combats the evil one. It is always true, and especially important this week to give charity and help individuals and communities with charity. It will strengthen your resolve to fight the perpetrators of the world (both inner and outer), and benefit both others and yourself in magnificent ways.
There is an old story of a boy who goes to his grandfather with the following dilemma. “Grandfather”, he says. “I feel like there are two wolves battling inside me for control of my soul: a good one and an evil one. How do I know which one will win?” His grandfather replied, “Whichever one you feed the most”.
May we all be aware of this perpetual conflict with the Amaleks without and the Amalek within, and may we all choose through acts of charity, prayer, and self awareness to weaken the evil inclination, strengthen the good inclination, and banish Amalek (both within and without) forever.
Rabbi Michael Barclay February 19, 2021 7th of Adar, 5781