As Purim approaches, we must consider why the reading of Parashat Zachor is such an important aspect of preparing for Purim. The Magein Avraham notes that one could fulfill the Mitzvah De’Oraita of remembering Amaleik with the reading of either Parashat BeShalach or Parashat Ki Teitzei, both of which record the story of Amaleik. However, the Anshei K’nesset HaGedolah felt it necessary to have the special reading of Zachor right before Purim to draw a clear connection between the original attack by Amaleik and their attack in the days of Haman. The reason, says the Magein Avraham, is obvious! We should not think of Amaleik as an enemy of the past; rather, we should be reminded every year that just as they attacked us in the Midbar, so too they attacked us in the days of Haman and have continued to attack us since then. If we fail to learn from the past, Amaleik will surely resurface. But what is the lesson to be learned? What mistakes on our part bring Amaleik upon us?
When we look at the original battle with Amaleik in Parashat BeShalach, there seems to be no rhyme or reason for Amaleik’s attack. The Pasuk (Shemot 17:8) simply states, “VaYavo Amaleik VaYilachem BeYisrael BeRephidim”, “And Amaleik came and battled against the Jews in Rephidim.” Amaleik seemingly out of nowhere wages war against us.
Rashi explains why Bnei Yisrael deserved to be attacked by pointing us to the story immediately prior to Amaleik’s attack, where Bnei Yisrael complain to Moshe for water. While the demand for water on its own may have been understandable, the perspective and attitude expressed by Bnei Yisrael reveals a fundamental flaw. As the Pasuk testifies, (Shemot 17:7) Bnei Yisrael questioned whether Hashem was really in their midst as they traveled in the desert.
The lack of recognition of Hashem’s constant presence in this world is what always brings about Amaleik. As developed in depth by Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Amaleik is the force of chance - Mikreh - that relate to world events as having no significance, no message, and certainly, no religious meaning. When we fail to see that everything is controlled by Hashem we expose ourselves to Amaleik. Similarly, in the days of Haman, when the Jews of Persia perhaps put more trust in political figures like Achashverosh than in the Ribbono Shel Olam, Haman’s attack reminded us that no current of history is made without Hashem pulling the strings.
Although there are many additional points that support this approach, I would like to focus on a different aspect of our battles with Amaleik that also clearly expresses itself in the story of Purim. When we look at Haman’s justification for killing the Jewish people, he describes Bnei Yisrael as a nation that is “Mefuzar UMeforad Bein Ha’Amim,” “Scattered and dispersed amongst the nations” (Megillat Esther 3:8). Even Haman recognized that a nation that is meant to be an Am Echad was failing. The lack of Achdut amongst Klal Yisrael was the very cause for our narrowly averted destruction.
What must happen for the Purim story to completely reverse? Esther tells Mordechai (Megillat Esther 4:16) “Leich Kenos Et Kol HaYehudim,” “Go and assemble the entire Jewish people.” If we want to overcome Haman, we must fast and daven, but even more so, we must unite as a people. Rav Shlomo Alkabetz suggests that this answer explains why we celebrate Purim the way we do. Why, in contrast to other Yamim Tovim, do we have a special Mitzvah of Mishlo’ach Manot? Mishlo’ach Manot is the way we ensure that we share the joy of Purim with as many people as possible. The Mitzvah of Mishlo’ach Manot creates a greater sense of Achdut and closeness within Am Yisrael.
If the lack of Achdut is what brought Amaleik upon us in the Purim story, then perhaps it was also the problem in Parashat BeShalach. Chazal say that Am Yisrael was most united at Matan Torah, as the Pasuk (Shemot 19:2) states, “VaYichan Sham Yisrael Neged HaHar,” “And the Jewish people encamped there in front of the mountain.” Rashi (Shemot 19:2 s.v. VaYichan Sham) notes that the word “VaYichan” is singular; this form is used to teach us that all members of Am Yisrael were “Ke’Ish Echad BeLev Echad”, “Like one man with one heart.” It’s true that we all came together in order to receive the Torah, but we can imply that until we arrived at Har Sinai, we were not such a unified nation.
In fact, the story right before Matan Torah, according to most opinions, is the battle with Amaleik. Considering that the Torah is not always in chronological order, many assume the beginning of Parashat Yitro occurred after Matan Torah. Therefore, the war with Amaleik would have had to take place immediately before Matan Torah. The Kli Yakar suggests (Shemot 19:2 s.v. VaYisu) that the place where we were encamped when Amaleik attacked was Rephidim. What’s the meaning of the name Rephidim? If you rearrange the letters in Rephidim by switching the Reish and the Phey, you get Pridim which means ‘the separated ones.’ Just as Haman described us an “Am Meforad,” so too in Rephidim our lack of unity brought Amaleik upon us. How do beat Amaleik? By becoming Keish Echad BeLev Echad. It is no coincidence that both battles against Amaleik are followed by an acceptance of the Torah. The Gemara (Shabbat 88a) comments on the phrase (Megillat Esther 9:27) “Kiyemu VeKiblu HaYehudim,” “The Jews undertook and accepted.” Following the Purim miracle we reaffirmed our acceptance of the Torah out of love. Only when we recognize the importance of each member of Klal Yisrael and join together as a nation do we find ourselves worthy of the gift of Torah.
In addition to the battle at Rephidim, there is yet another attack by Amaleik in the Torah itself that is not often given attention. In Parashat Chukat, after the death of Aharon HaKohein, the Torah briefly describes the attack of the Kena’ani Melech Arad. In identifying our attacker, Rashi (BeMidbar 21:1 s.v. Yosheiv HaNegev) quotes from the Midrash that it was actually Amaleik, masking itself as a group of Kena’anim. What triggered this attack? The Gemara in Rosh HaShanah notes that the story begins with “VaYishma HaKena’ani,” “And the Kena’ani heard” (BeMidbar 21:1), without actually describing what was heard. Based on the events of the previous Perek, Chazal say the king heard of Aharon’s death and assumed Am Yisrael would be vulnerable. Why does the death of Aharon HaKohein make Bnei Yisrael more vulnerable to attack? The Gemara says that the Ananei HaKavod that had been protecting the Jews was in the merit of Aharon, and after he died, they were no longer present to protect Bnei Yisrael.
We can suggest on a deeper level that the loss of Aharon HaKohein meant the weakening of his legacy and impact on the people. What was Aharon HaKohein’s legacy? The Mishnah in Avot describes him as a person who loved Chesed, chased after peace, and brought people closer to Torah. The person who more than anyone devoted himself to bringing Jews together was Aharon HaKohein. Would we be able to remain a unified nation without Aharon HaKohein? Our sense of Achdut must have been weakened because Amaleik felt compelled to attack. Only when we lose our sense of unity does Amaleik approach. In this incident, after a captive was taken, Bnei Yisrael vowed to devote the spoils of the war to Hashem if they won. The word “VaYidar,” “And he vowed” (BeMidbar 21:2) in the Pasuk is written in the singular; this signifies the unity of Am Yisrael, just as the singular word “VaYichan” did in Parashat Yitro. The Torah highlights that our response to Amaleik was, and must be, to act as one unified people, just like we were Ke’Ish Echad BeLev Echad at Har Sinai and in the Purim story.