Remembering Haman's Roots

In the modern world, fighting Amalek--Haman's nation--means fighting for the weak and vulnerable

With this week's Torah portion, we begin the book of

Vayikra

(Leviticus). The primary focus of

Vayikra

is priestly ritual, and quite fittingly the first portion introduces us to the various sacrifices. There is the

olah,

the offering that is completely burnt; the

mincha,

which consists of wheat meal, oil, and frankincense, and is either baked, fried, or deep-fried; and the

shlamim

(peace offering),

chatat

(sin offering), and

asham

(guilt offering), all of which are partially burnt and partially eaten.

Along with the portion of

Vayikra,

we also read

Parshat Zachor

(Deuteronomy 25:17-19), in which the Torah exhorts us to remember our duty to destroy the nation of Amalek. Halaka--Jewish law--demands that all adult Jews hear these verses read aloud on this Shabbat. Who is this nation of Amalek? What have they done wrong, and why is it so important to annihilate them?

The first time that we encounter Amalek is in Exodus 17:8-16. The Israelites have recently left Egypt, and before they arrive at Mount Sinai they are attacked by the people of Amalek at a place called Refidim. A battle ensues, and the Israelites, led by Joshua, prevail. God promises to destroy Amalek eventually. From this account, it is not clear why Amalek is singled out as an eternal enemy. In the course of time, many other nations attack the Jews, but we do not vehemently renew the feud against them each year.

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The verses that we read from Deuteronomy this Shabbat help elucidate the matter. We are told, "Remember what Amalek did to you on the journey as you left Egypt. That they came upon you on the journey and attacked the weak ones at the rear and you were tired and weary and not fearing God" (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). Amalek was the first nation to attack the Israelites after they left Egypt. The Midrash Tanchuma blames Amalek for shattering the aura of invincibility that surrounded the Israelites after the miraculous Exodus. Rav Saadiah Gaon explains that Amalek was particularly nefarious because they preyed on the weak and helpless stragglers who could not keep up with everyone else.

One of the most infamous descendants of Amalek is Haman, the villain of the Purim story. Haman persuades the King of Persia and Media to kill all the Jews because they are a people "spread up and divided among all the nations ... and it is not worthwhile to the King to allow them to exist" (Esther 3:8). Haman decides to attack the Jews because they are a weak and divided nation, in keeping with the Amalekite predilection for targeting the vulnerable. When Haman is defeated at the end of the Purim story, it is not only a triumph for the Jews but also a victory against the notion of attacking the helpless.

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