Tetzave – The Evil of Amalek
“Remember what Amalek has done to you, on your way leaving from Egypt. That he happened upon you along the way, and he struck those of you who were lagging behind, while you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18)
Each year on the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim we read these verses from a second scroll, exhorting us to remember the evil of Amalek. The reading is a fulfilment of the Mitzvah to remember, and it was instituted that we read this just before Purim because of Haman’s link to Amalek and his similar designs.
The particular evil of Amalek needs explanation. Over millennia many nations have risen against us. In our history we have been wronged by nearly every major power on the planet which encountered the Jewish people. Is Amalek so much worse than all the others that we need to make a special occasion of remembering Amalek’s evil toward us?
The second verse cited above begins with the phrase, “That he happened upon you…” This is the most common translation, and commentators explain the significance of the term “happened” and how this term expresses the evil of Amalek. But the word may connote other interpretations. Rashi offers several possibilities, one of which is “cold.” The verse would accordingly read: “That [Amalek] has cooled you down along the way…” Rashi explains that there was an aura of awe surrounding the people of Israel. According to the Midrash the splitting of the sea made waves throughout the civilized world. All bodies of water experienced some disruption at that time, and all nations became aware of the great miracles God had performed for the children of Israel. Israel became untouchable, held in awe and shrouded not only in the clouds of glory but in the mystique of the supernatural providence evident in their short history and their sustained existence in the wilderness.
That reverence was shattered by Amalek. Although Amalek was beaten back and defeated, their attack removed the image of invincibility that surrounded Israel. They cooled down the ring of fire, destroying the stigma that had developed against harming the nation of Israel.
The Babylonian Talmud in Yoma (86b) cites Rav Huna, who makes a strange statement. “Once a person commits a transgression and repeats it, it becomes permissible to him.” The gemara immediately calls for clarification. “Can it possibly have become permitted to him? Rather, it becomes for him as though it is permitted.”
As it often does the Talmud here expresses an insight of human psychology. A certain reverence is commanded by that which is forbidden to us. A child slipping out the window in the dark of night to meet a friend and have a smoke experiences a thrill simply from the daring of it. Climbing out the window in broad daylight, with a parent’s sanction, carries none of that thrill, but the unlawful nature of such an escape adds considerable excitement. One the child has done this numerous times, however, the thrill dissipates. It doesn’t feel as risky, and the daring no longer engenders an excitement above engaging in permissible activities. The stigma of crime has been broken down, becoming equal in the child’s eyes to a permitted activity.
Before Amalek ventured to attack Israel it was unthinkable to do so. No other nation would contemplate harassing Israel after the spectacular events during and following the Exodus. It was outside of the realm of permissible, and the risk was too great to consider no matter how strong the hatred and malevolence. Once Amalek made its move, however, once Amalek demonstrated that an attempt can be made, that it is thinkable, other nations could also contemplate attacking. The heat of the danger was cooled, even if only slightly, by Amalek. The real harm perpetrated by Amalek was thus the fact that it was now ok for others to think of harming Israel. They broke the seal of the bottle, and others are more apt to steal a drink from a bottle that is already open.
Habit is a very powerful guardian of behavior. A child who goes to school daily will be very reticent to unjustifiably skip a day. But once he does so, once he plays hooky and is able to get away with it, the likelihood of doing it again grows substantially. And after several instances a pattern is established. The biggest step was the first time. Breaking that glass ceiling and becoming familiar with the “other side” makes it more and more easy to repeat. This is one lesson the Torah wants us to remember, and review annually. A bad habit is developed very easily. It might just be one cigarette, but it very quickly becomes “permitted.”