The saga of the antipathy between the children of Israel and the tribe of Amalek runs through four books of the Tanakh (Bible). The first episode is found in Sefer Shmot (Exodus 17:8-16), where we take in the actual battle; the second, in Sefer Dvarim (Deuteronomy), where the command to extirpate the tribe is made explicit; the third, records the story of the prophet Samuel’s demand that King Saul carry out this ruling and Saul’s subsequent failure to fulfill it in full; and the fourth, the climax, the story in the book of Esther, where Mordechai, a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin, Saul’s tribe, acts as Saul’s surrogate to finish Saul’s uncompleted obligation.
The story begins in Shmot, which recounts a difficult battle, overseen by Moshe and carried out by Yehoshua. There, Moshe commands Yehoshua to blot out the memory of Amalek (Ex. 17:14). In Devarim (25:17-19), the acrimony for Amalek is ratcheted up. Amalek is remembered for its egregious transgression of the rules of war by attacking the weak and defenseless while doing battle with the children of Israel. This heinous crime called for the memory of Amalek to be wiped out in perpetuity.
Later on, the Prophet Samuel charged King Saul with fulfilling this commandment: “I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself up against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not…” (verses 3-4) However, Saul failed to comply in full, leaving the Amalekite king, Agag, alive. Samuel berated Saul accordingly and finished the job himself. This proved the downfall of Saul as king.
This is where the Book of Esther picks up the story in order to rescue Saul’s honor. Haman, a descendent of Agag, and Mordechai, of the tribe of Benjamin, share an age-old enmity. This is why Mordechai cannot bow before Haman and why Haman cannot suffer the existence of Mordechai or his people. One of the two must defeat the other for the plot of the story to reach its end. The tension in the story is over who will ultimately prevail.
This is what makes the Purim story so positively cathartic. Since enemies like Haman and Amalek never really seem to disappear, it is nice once a year to imagine their defeat – the defeat of evil. In fact, it is positively redemptive. And I’ll drink to that. Purim Sameah.