Mishnas Chayim – Vayikra: Remembering Torah by Remembering Amalek

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11 Mar 2008

View pdf – Parashat Vayikra 5768

Kindly take a moment to study MISHNAS CHAYIM in the merit of פנינה חנה בת אברהם ע”ה a fellow Jew who passed away with no relatives to arrange Torah study on behalf of her Neshamah.

There is a well known story about two friends—let’s call them Moishe and Yankel—who meet up for the first time in years. Not having seen each other for a while, they have lots to catch up on. After a time, Moishe interrupts their chat.

“Nu, Yankel, you didn’t ask me about my business.”

“Oh, sorry, Moishe….I didn’t get to it yet. So, how’s business?”

“Oh, don’t ask!”

In a certain sense, we find a similar dichotomy surrounding the directive of mechiyat Amalek (blotting out the memory of the wicked Amalekite nation), the theme of the special Torah reading of this Shabbos Zachor.

Displaying Displeasure

A brief examination of the topic reveals a paradoxical phenomenon. The Torah does not harbor the fondest feelings towards the nation of Haman—to say the least. In light of their utter wickedness, and the grave atrocities that they perpetrated against Hashem and His people, the Torah commands (Devarim 25:19):

תִּמְחֶה אֶת־זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח:
“You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget (to adhere to this command).”

Some manifestations of this dictum are reflected in the following practices:

The Rama (Orach Chaim 690:17) promotes the time-honored custom wherein the congregation responds to the mention of Haman’s name in the Megillah with various bangs and smashes. Apparently, the minhag developed from an earlier one in which the children would inscribe Haman’s name or draw a picture of his likeness on rocks or sticks. They would then repeatedly knock these objects against each other, thus wearing ‘Haman’ down, in consonance with the aforementioned directive to ‘wipe out the memory of Amalek’.

The Chasam Sofer (Annotations to Orach Chaim, ibid.) proffers an original explanation for the minhag of ‘klopping Haman’. We make a racket when Haman’s name is cited in an attempt to avoid even hearing that reviled name. The seforim clarify that, of course, the name must actually be heard—just as is required with every other word of the Megillah—in order to fulfill the mitzvah of the reading. A disciple explains the Chasam Sofer’s intent as follows: The act of noise-making is a demonstration of our pain in being forced to hear Haman’s name. By raising a ruckus, it is as if we are declaring that we are resigned to suffer through it for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah, but we wish we could have avoided hearing his name altogether (Milei D’avos, vol.3, sec. 13).

These types of activities were not limited to Purim alone. The Kav Hayashar (ch. 99) describes the practice of the venerated R’ Heschel of Krakow. Whenever he wanted to ascertain if a writing implement was in working order, he would scribble down the names of Haman and his progeny, and proceed to erase them, in fulfillment of the mitzvah of blotting out the name of Amalek.

Out of Place?

In light of the sentiments delineated above, the following Gemara should come as quite a surprise.

Before beginning a sugya comprised of multiple sections, the Gemara frequently employs a siman (mnemonic device). Often, this will take the form of a word composed of an arrangement of letters selected from the key words of the various upcoming subjects.

The Gemara in Bava Basra (46b) initiates a discussion about the ability of the following individuals to testify in beis din: the cosigner (עָרֵב), creditor (מַלְוֶה), buyer (לוֹקֵחַ), and substitute debtor (קַבְּלָן). What do you think the Gemara chose as the siman to introduce these topics? You guessed it–עמלק!

What’s going on here? Could there be a more counterproductive method for extinguishing the memory of Amalek other than ensconcing it as the introduction to a classic sugya smack in the middle of Chezkas Habatim?

In truth, as ironic as it may sound, granting Amalek such a station may very well be one of the best ways to combat it.

Beating Them at Their Own Game

The Mishnah in Avos (4:10) states:

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר…אִם בִּטַּלְתָּ מִן הַתּוֹרָה, יֶשׁ לְךָ בְּטֵלִים הַרְבֵּה כְּנֶגְדָּךְ.

“R’ Meir says: If you idle yourself from Torah study, you will be confronted by numerous ‘idlers’.”

Rabbeinu Yonah (ibid.) explains: Hashem will send forth the unproductive—and consequently dangerous—elements against an individual who is generally unoccupied when it comes to learning Torah, as fitting punishment. These elements include wild animals and wicked, destructive people. In the words of R’ Yonah, Hashem employs these elements as His “rod of chastisement with which to exact punishment from those who neglect Torah study.”

Why and how did Amalek first come to confront the Jewish people? It appears from Chazal that the whole episode followed the pattern laid out in the above Mishnah in Pirkei Avos. The Medrash (Pirkei D’R’ Eliezer, 44) compares the situation of Amalek’s attack on Yisrael to that of an orchard owner who unleashes his attack dog against an intruder. Similarly, Amalek served as Hashem’s agent in confronting the Jewish people on account of a particular transgression.

What was the Jews’ offense? The Gemara in Sanhedrin (106a) finds an allusion to their misdeed in the name of the location where the confrontation took place: Refidim (Shemos 17:8). According to the Gemara, the Jewish people, at that juncture, had actually been slackening in their Torah studies: Rafu yedeihem min haTorah. As a result, Amalek was summoned to serve as the ‘rod of chastisement’ which is wielded when Torah study is neglected.

R’ Yaakov Emden (Bava Basra, ibid) explains that it is for this very reason that the Gemara made use of ‘Amalek’ to serve as the mnemonic for an integral sugya. Amalek, as we have seen, derives its strength from bitul Torah—the neglect of Torah study. By choosing Amalek to serve as a memory aid for Torah study, Chazal took the proverbial bull by the horns. They utilized Amalek to strengthen and increase Torah knowledge, thereby using Amalek to weaken themselves.

In essence, this is a fundamental aspect of the mitzvah of reading Parshas Zachor, which begins: “Remember what Amalek perpetrated against you” (Devarim 25:17). As R’ Aharon Kotler explains (Mishnas R’ Aharon, vol. 3, p. 93), ‘remembering’ what Amalek did entails focusing on the reasons which prompted their hostility, and attempting to rectify these failings. One of the best ways to completely wipe out the power and memory of Amalek, is to adopt R’ Yaakov Emden’s approach: A strengthened commitment to toil in Torah study, which will eliminate Amalek’s entire essence of being.

Mishnas Chayim is brought to you by Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah, a network of Torah scholars dedicated to bringing the merits of Mishnah study to the greater Jewish public. Encompassing Mishnah, Gemara, and variety of other services, Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah primarily assists mourners interested in acquiring the merit of Torah study for their loved ones. To learn more visit www.societyformishnahstudy.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.