(Courtesy: Mekor Chaim, by: Rabbi Elana Kantor)
The Shabbat before Purim, Shabbat Zachor, takes its name from the maftir aliya, in which we are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, in a move that is typical of Hasidic texts, understands the mitzvah of blotting out Amalek as a spiritual battle, rather than a physical one.
“Not only are Jews commanded to wipe out the Amalek who is the descendant of Esau, but each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart. So long as the descendants of Amalek are in the world – and each of us is also a small world, so when the power of evil in each of us arises (that which leads us to sin) Amalek is still in the world – the reminder (to wipe out Amalek) repeats from the Torah. Now, Israel’s power is in speech – “the voice is the voice of Jacob (Gen.27:22)” – Torah study and prayer. When we are filled with this power, and our hearts burn for the Holy One, no evil can control us. But, when we loosen our grip on this power, we suffer what happened to the Israelites: “‘they encamped at Rephidim [rifyon yadayim, weakness of hands] (Ex.17:1)’ – they loosened their hands (from Torah and mitzvot).” Immediately following that, “And Amalek came (ibid. 8)”; immediately evil spread out with him (cf. Sanh.106a). Nevertheless, when we hold onto the practice of “yirah”, to fear transgressing the mitzvot before His Blessedness, we will not come to sin. (Kedushat Levi, Parshat Zachor p.229, Translation, Rabbi Jonathan Slater)
To identify any one living group or person as the modern day Amalek is a dangerous enterprise, because from the perspective of Jewish tradition, it implies a death sentence. And we have seen the lethal consequences when those who take this mitzvah literally, see a new Amalek and take action, as in the case of Dr. Baruch Goldstein and the murder of Palestinians on Purim in 1994.
In the Kedushat Levi’s commentary, however, Reb Levi Yitzhak comes as close as one can, to salvaging the idea of Amalek, by locating it within: in the human capacity for evil which lies within each one of us. And the way to deal with ‘the Amalek within’ is to use the strengths of the Jewish people, our ability to speak words of Torah and our ability to perform mitzvot. These strengths can help us use the energy within us for goodness, to battle those who would do harm.
We learn from Reb Levi Yitzhak, that when tackling the problem of evil, it is not just something that is “out there,” but rather, it is “in here,” as well. What is our part in sustaining evil in the world, and what strengths can we use to bring goodness into the world, to challenge the evil?
Rabbi Elana Kanter serves as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School in Phoenix, Arizona. She and her husband, Rabbi Michael Wasserman, are also co-Rabbis of The New Shul, in Scottsdale, Arizona.