From Haman to Hamas

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by R. Basil Herring

From Haman to Hamas:

Reflections on a 1959 Purim Shiur by R. Joseph D. Soloveitchik

Toward the end of a lengthy address dealing with various aspects of the Purim Megilla, the Rav asked a rather simple question: why is the festival called “Purim” (literally “Lots”, in the plural) and not “Pur” (in the singular)? After all, the Megilla records that Haman cast one lot – not many lots – to determine the date of his genocidal attack on the Jews. The Rav answered that the plural was intended to convey that the events of the Megilla were the forerunner of many similar historical episodes in Jewish history, many “Purims”, that were, literally, to become “the lot of the Jewish people,” when our enemies would seek, time after time, to destroy us as a nation.

Moreover, these repeated episodes were anticipated by the Torah itself when it mandated a specific mitzvah out of the 613 Mitzvot, not once but twice: i.e., the mitzvah to destroy Amalek, as found at the conclusions of Parshat Beshalach and Parshat Ki Tetze respectively, the latter of which we of course read every year on Parshat Zachor that precedes Purim. The difference between these two passages, the Rav explained, is that the Ki Tetze passage obliges the individual Jew to destroy Amalek, whereas that of Beshalach is directed to the nation of Israel, requiring it as a national entity to go to war against Amalek so as to remove it from the face of the earth.

The problem, however, is that, as the Gemara Brachot 28a explains, during the period of the First Temple, Sennacherib king of Assyria in creating his empire engaged in massive population transfers, mixing up the nations other than the people of Israel, such that ever since then we cannot know for sure as to who is descended from which early peoples or tribes. If so, how can we identify, and therefore wage war against Amalek in every succeeding generation? Surely this mitzvah cannot have lapsed in the intervening centuries? An answer to this question, says the Rav in a footnote to his essay Kol Dodi Dofek, in the name of his father, R. Moshe Soloveitchik, can be found in a careful reading of Rambam.

The Rambam, in Mishneh Torah Hil. Melakhim 5:4, codifies the obligation upon Israel to destroy the Seven Canaanite nations, and then adds the crucial phrase u-kvar avad zikhram (“but their identity was subsequently lost.”) In the next halacha, Rambam codifies the separate mitzvah to wage war against Amalek, but notably omits this key phrase. The question is why. Various answers have been put forth, but it is the view of R. Moshe, and of the Rav himself, that the term Amalek does not refer to a particular nation and its biological or blood descendants. Rather, as the Rav puts it, “Every nation that conspires to destroy the Jewish people is to be considered by the halakha to be Amalek.” Yes there was a people by that name who attacked the Israelites following the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, but the name did not apply to their direct descendants. Instead, it adhered to any nation or group at any time that, like Amalek, seeks the annihilation of the people of Israel. Therefore, in speaking of Amalek, the Rambam does not say that their identity was lost – we always know who Amalek is because of what they desire to do, i.e., commit the genocide of the Jews. Thus, for instance, said the Rav, the Nazis and all those who supported their genocidal goals were in fact halakhically (not just homiletically or figuratively) the personification of Amalek in their generation, hence properly to be destroyed and eradicated.

There is one caveat to all of this, said the Rav. What did lapse with Sennacherib was the mitzvah incumbent on the individual Jew in relation to Amalek, as formulated in in the singular in Ki Tetze. What did not lapse was the national, or corporate, obligation found in Beshalach which specifies that it is a mitzvah from generation to generation, continuing down through the subsequent generations.

Yet there is a crucial question that the Beshalach passage poses: why does the Torah refer to this commandment as milchama laShem be’Amalek mi-dor dor, “a war of God against Amalek in every succeeding generation”, instead of what one might have thought “a war of the Jewish people against Amalek in every generation?” If it is God’s war, why does He Himself not destroy them, just as he did to the Egyptians? The answer, said the Rav, is that when the Jewish people goes to war against Amalek it is fighting God’s war. For it is of the very essence of Amalek that even though he declares war on the Jews, and wants to destroy them, the reason he wants to do so is ultimately because of what the Jew represents. And what precisely is that?

The answer to this question, says the Rav, is found in Megillat Esther, when it says that what infuriated Haman was because u-Mordechai lo yichra velo yishtachaveh (“Mordechai did not bow down or prostrate himself”) before Haman. Was it simply Mordechai’s refused to kowtow to Haman? The Megilla tells us emphatically otherwise, when it records that in convincing Achashverosh to implement the genocide, Haman explains that it is not just this one individual but “am Mordechai” – all of his fellow Jews insofar as dateihem shonot mi-kol am (“they follow laws and customs that are different from those of every other people, including those of the King himself”) and must therefore be dispensed with. In other words, these people have a different value system, a different system of beliefs, different priorities and lifestyles, all based on their unique religion and faith commitments.

What was it exactly that those Israelites refused to adopt as their own? As the Rav explained in another lecture, there is a reason that the Megilla goes out of its way to describe the obscene debaucheries of the royal court, and the shocking treatment of Vashti the Queen who was executed for refusing to appear naked (as our Sages explain) before a drunken King and his courtiers, not to speak of the depraved manner in which multiple young women were groomed for the King’s sexual pleasure, or the later episode in which Queen Esther herself could have been executed as well for approaching the King without being summoned. Such debased values, such hedonistic decrepitude, and the necessarily resulting disregard for human dignity and life itself, were anathema to the Jews who understood that such vile pagan values were in diametric opposition to what the Torah had told Avraham Avinu (in the context of the similar immoral behavior of Sodom and Gemora) that his descendants would always follow what Avraham stood for, i.e., ve’shamru derekh Hashem la’asot tzedakah u-mishpat (“to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right.”)

And thus Haman declared a genocidal war against the Jews, but it was to be in essence a religious war, waged against the religion and culture that the Jews followed as a people apart, and ultimately against the God that they represented. And so the “am Mordechai” the people of Mordechai, had to respond, by waging God’s war against the embodiment of Amalek of their time, in accordance with what they had been commanded in the desert of Sinai “mi-dor dor,” for all time.

As a postscript to this analysis of the Rav, and in light of our own national experience in these dark days, we can add the following:

What was true in Persia in those days, and in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Europe, in the pagan, genocidal Third Reich of the 1930’s and 40’s, is surely true today, in Gaza, in Teheran, in Ramallah, and wherever genocidal anti-Semites and their supporters gather around the world, be it in the streets of Paris and London or New York and Berkeley, the hallowed halls of the UN, or the leafy campuses of what were once great universities, the terrorists and the supporters do not hide what motivates them. Their political and religious leaders, and the representatives of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran explicitly tell us that it is their religion, which they repeatedly invoke, by Koranic chapter and verse, or their battle cry of Allahu Akbar (“God is the greatest”) in their pursuit of the destruction not just of the State of Israel and its population, but of every Jew, unto death, for our temerity in wanting a Jewish state of our own, a place where we can live in freedom to practice our ancient ways, and to serve our God in accordance with the Torah and tradition. For unlike what some in the State Department or White House might think, for Hamas and its allies this is not merely a war over land or borders, or the establishment of an independent state “from the river to the sea.” It is in fact and in deed, a religious war, or if you will a civilizational confrontation, waged against us Jews, our religion, and our God, wherever we are. It is a hatred of the unique moral code that the Jew, the Jewish State, the Jewish army, and for that matter the unparalleled intellectual, financial, and cultural contributions of the Jews – no matter their level of observance or identification with our traditions, to the well-being of every society that they have ever been a part of – all of them a reflection of the derech Hashem, the way of God, to do what is just and right, a derech in peace and in war rooted in God’s Torah and in generations of rabbinic tradition, and a steadfast adherence to a code of conduct that sets us apart from a cynical, intolerant world. This they cannot abide. Not Haman then, not Hamas now.

And so let us be strong and of good courage as we rededicate ourselves together with our brave, holy, soldiers in Israel who today are fighting the war of the God against Amalek at risk of life and limb, in the knowledge that no matter the current difficulties, we the Jewish people in Israel and around the world will prevail, as we have in every generation before us, in this latest manifestation of that age-old disease, call it what you will – Amalekitism, antisemitism, pagan nihilism, or whatever – and that like in the days of Mordechai and Esther we too will be blessed to overcome and destroy our enemies, God’s enemies, to invigorate our people and our faith even as we mourn our dead, and comfort our injured and our violated brothers and sisters, to see our masses once more embrace the ways and the values of our eternal Torah, and return to our ancient homeland Israel, there to participate in the building of the Third Temple, and to witness the arrival of Mashiach ben David, may it come soon, bi-meheira be’yeimanu, amen.

About Basil Herring

Rabbi Basil Herring PhD has headed a number of congregations, taught at various colleges, published a number of volumes and studies in contemporary Halachah, medieval Jewish philosophy and Bible, and best Rabbinic practices. A past Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Caucus and Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA), he is the editor of the recently published Avodat Halev Siddur of the Rabbinical Council of America.

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