“Remember (in Hebrew, Zachor) what (the nation of) Amalek did to you (the Children of Israel), on the way, after you left Egypt. How he met you along the way, attacking the stragglers at the rear, when you were faint and tired, and he was not afraid of God. Therefore… blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. You should not forget!” (The Torah portion of Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy, 25:17-19). These words, in addition to the regular Torah portion, are read on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, when the Book of Esther is read, because the holiday commemorates the Jews’ victory over the evil Haman, the Agagite, a direct descendant of Amalek.
The Haftorah, the prophets portion read on Shabbat Zachor, is from the Book of Samuel. There it recounts the story of the Prophet Samuel’s instructions, directly from God, to King Saul to wipe out Amalek. “So says the Lord, ‘I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he attacked him on the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not have pity on them.’” (Samuel I, 15:2-3). The king disobeys God and he spares Agag, the Amalekite king. Samuel is angry and kills Agag, but the damage has been done. Before he was killed, Agag had succeeded in fathering a child, and from that child, after a number of generations, came Haman.
The connection between the Shabbat and its additional Torah reading, and the chosen Haftorah is obvious. But it is nonetheless a bit disconcerting. In the Torah, God tells us to blot out even the memory of Amalek, yet the Haftorah recounts a story of not just the failure to do that, but even worse. And because of it, we get the evil Haman, who as Prime Minister of the Persian empire nearly 2400 years ago, convinces his king to issue a decree “to destroy, kill, and cause to perish all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women, on one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and their spoils to be taken as plunder.” (Esther 3:13).
To realize a better justification for the connection, we have to understand that the Torah reading, the Haftorah reading and Purim, are not just chronologically connective chapters in Jewish history; they are an intertwined embodiment of commandment, failure to comply, and ultimate redemption.
In the Book of Esther, when Mordechai sends a message to Queen Esther about Haman’s wicked plan telling her to go to King Achashverosh to ask him to rescind the edict, she balks at the notion, explaining to Mordechai that one cannot simply go to the king without being summoned. “Anyone who did so would be put to death unless the king extended his golden scepter allowing the intrusion. And I have not been summoned in thirty days.” (Esther 4:11). Mordechai tells her, “Don’t think your being in the king’s house will allow you to be spared the fate of the Jews. If you stay silent at this time, deliverance and rescue will come to the Jews from somewhere else, but you and your father’s house will perish, and who knows, maybe you attained royalty just for this moment.” (Esther 4:13-14).
Lets’ dissect this back and forth between these two protagonists. Mordechai tells Esther about Haman’s plan to have all the Jews in the kingdom murdered and Esther makes excuses. Why? Even if Esther believed she would be spared, would she, could she, accept the destruction of her people? Of course not. But the decree for the murder of the Jews was to take place in nearly a year’s time. It had just been issued in the month of Nissan, to be carried out 11 months later in the month of Adar. Esther understood the situation, but by stating she had not been summoned to the king in thirty days, she was telling Mordechai she believed Achashverosh would ask for her very soon. There was time. Why rush things and be killed for being too hasty? How would that help? Mordechai impressed on her the urgency of the matter, “at this time.” Time flies. That terrible day will be here soon enough and now is the time to act, not when the machinations of the edict had been fully spread and embedded throughout the empire making it difficult, if not impossible, to stop.
Mordechai attacks Esther’s sense of security. He knew from God’s promises that although many Jews would be killed over the generations, the Jewish people would never be obliterated. “You, Esther,” he told her, “and your father’s house may not be so lucky.” What did Mordechai mean by her “father’s house?” And was there anything more to his telling Esther there just might have been a reason she become royalty at this very moment in time?
Mordechai is indeed telling Esther that she was in the right place at the right time to help the Jews, but he also attempts to appeal to her sense of family honor. The 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, in his book Manot HaLevi, says that Mordechai was reminding Esther, that it was her “father’s house” that basically caused this disaster. Mordechai and Esther were descendants of the royal family of Saul, the Jewish king, who in direct violation of God’s orders as I mentioned above, allowed Agog of Amalek to live. And now, Agog’s descendant Haman was trying to kill the Jews. “You can fix this, Esther, in fact, you have a responsibility to correct this blunder,” Mordechai said. “If you don’t take this opportunity as Queen to try, you will most likely be killed. But here and now, you have the chance to save the whole Jewish people and at the same time redeem our family name.”
We know the rest of the story. Esther saves the Jewish people, she redeems her “father’s house,” and the Jews have a new and festive holiday, Purim. But there is more to this story than just the triumph of good over evil. Mordechai and Esther teach us that maybe, just maybe, we are put into certain inexplicable situations because eventually we will have an opportunity to do something positive for one or for many. It could be a simple act of kindness that changes someone’s life for the better, or it might be a bold and risky act that saves a people. Mordechai and Esther, from the Jewish exiles after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, were minding their own business when the king wanted a new wife. Esther didn’t ask to be Queen, she was a modest person who didn’t want to be any kind of leader. But when a whole nation was in peril, and Mordechai explained to her, that maybe, just maybe, this was why she became Queen at the same time, Esther stood up and led her people to salvation. This generations-delayed, full circle, double redemption – both of the people and Esther’s family name, makes the chosen Haftorah for Shabbat Zachor wholly appropriate.
Amalek, perhaps the world’s first terrorists of record, attacked the Children of Israel, not head on, even though they were tired from the Exodus, but these immoral progenitors of more evil-to-come went after “the stragglers at the rear” – the infirm, the elderly, women and children, the defenseless, those unprepared and unable to fight back. Only a few weeks ago, we read in the weekly Torah portion of Beshalach, Exodus 17:16, “God will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” And in every generation it seems, some new despicable form of Amalek targets the innocent and the defenseless. Or another, acting as the world’s chief terrorist nation in the same land of Mordechai’s time, decrees the same desire to destroy Jews. If someone who did not want to lead, like the brave heroine Esther, could stand up and confront evil, how much more so should we expect those in our time who wanted to lead to recognize and properly confront this generation’s Amalekites!