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Parshas Zachor: The Enemy of Joy

The forecast for shul this week is: crowded. This is because it is the week before Purim, also known as Shabbos Parshas Zachor, when we read about how Amalek attacked Bnei Yisrael shortly after Yetzias Mitzaryim in an attempt to undermine Hashem’s power and minimize His glory. According to the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim (685), the Mitzvah D’Oraisa of Zechiras Amalek is fulfilled through reading the portion of “Zachor es asher asah licha Amalek” in shul with a Minyan on the Shabbos before Purim (Bamidbar 25:17). The Sefer HaChinuch explains that we read Parshas Zachor before Purim because Haman, infamous villain of the Purim story, was a descendent of Amalek.

Is that all there is to it, though? Or is there an even deeper connection between remembering Amalek and celebrating Purim that links these two Mitzvos together so inextricably?

We read Parshas Zachor every year before Purim, during the month of Adar. The entire month of Adar is one where we are meant, and in fact enjoined, to increase our joy. Chazal (Taanis 29a:18) tell us, “Mishenichnas adar, marbim bi’simcha” – when the month of Adar comes, we magnify our joy. We are obligated to be joyful not only on Purim itself, but throughout the entire month of Adar! How does one accomplish this? Is it possible for us to be obligated to feel joy, even if there are life events occurring outside of the holiday of Purim that inherently elicit other emotions, such as sadness, worry, anger, or even grief? And what does any of this have to do with Amalek?

The Sefer HaChinuch divides Zechiras Amalek into three different Mitzvos: to remember Amalek (Mitzvah 603), to wipe out and destroy Amalek (Mitzvah 604), and to not forget Amalek and what they did (Mitzvah 605). Remembering Amalek refers to remembering how they attacked Bnei Yisrael, something in which we are constantly obligated. Not forgetting what they did refers to harboring in our hearts some disdain for Amalek as a nation, a hatred we must reinforce on an annual basis. And finally, there is a separate Mitzvah to wipe out and destroy Amalek (i.e. to kill every last member of the Amalekite nation). Since we do not know who descends from Amalek today and, as such, cannot possibly fulfill this Mitzvah in a physical sense, we must understand this as a spiritual endeavor, an obligation to destroy what Amalek represents and prevent their ideology from infiltrating our hearts and souls.

In order to do this, of course, we have to understand who this nation was and what they stood for. Rashi (Bamidbar 25:18) notes that one of our grievances with Amalek is “Asher karcha ba’derech,” that they happened upon us (i.e. attacked us) on our way out of Egypt. Rashi explains that the word “karcha,” derives from the word “kar,” which means cold in Hebrew, because Amalek was like the person who jumps into a hot bath and makes the water appear cool to everyone else. Once they attacked us, they essentially made it permissible and plausible for other nations to attack, despite the hot water they might have thought they’d be in by attacking G-d’s chosen nation on the heels of the awe-inspiring events of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

Furthermore, Rashi defines “Karcha” as being derived from the root “Mikreh,” which means circumstantial, or happenstance. R’ Tzadok HaCohen explains that Amalek’s very nature, and their goal in attacking Bnei Yisrael, was to undermine Hashem’s power, to deny His existence and His omnipotence, to make it seem as though everything that had happened in Egypt was purely coincidental. The spiritual force of Amalek has one goal, and that is to completely obliterate the notion of Hashgacha Pratis from global consciousness. As such, Amalek today is any force that causes us to doubt G-d’s purposeful, thoughtful role in our lives. The Amalek mindset drives us to think, “nah, that was just a coincidence,” or to question whether Hashem truly has our backs after all.

Doubt is one of the most crippling human experiences, kryptonite to anyone who seeks to live in peace and to experience joy. Uncertainty, the gnawing sensation that the firm, stable ground of truth is just out of reach, is at the root of every kind of anxiety a person can experience. Psychologically, when I am worried about something, I am truly experiencing a discomfort with the unknown. I do not like not knowing what the future holds, or whether I am safe, or what is coming next around the corner in my life. Anxiety may take on many different forms – one might worry about one’s health, safety, or wellbeing, or fear some unpredictable circumstance or fret that they might engage in some egregious behavior, or fear that someone else might behave in a dangerous or harmful way. Worry wears many hats, but at its core is an intolerance of uncertainty, an inability to sit with not knowing.

In Gematria, Amalek is equal to 240, which is the same numerical value as the word Safek, which means doubt. The Netziv (HaAmek Davar, Bamidbar 25:18) writes that Amalek’s attack came at a time that Bnei Yisrael were experiencing doubt that Hashem was in their midst. Amalek’s very nature is to create doubt, and to capitalize on doubt to increase fear and decrease faith. What if Hashem isn’t truly looking out for me? What if my life is purely circumstantial, a random arrangement of people, places, events, and experiences that has no true meaning, order, or purpose? Amalek’s goal is to get us to doubt, and as such, to lose sight of the ultimate Truth.

When we are in a state of fear or worry, it is extremely difficult to feel at peace, let alone to experience joy. Yet, when we are in a state of spiritual connection and trust in G-d, we can also palpably decrease our worry and fear. Psychologists[1],[2] have actually studied this phenomenon, and note that increasing one’s trust in G-d can help decrease anxiety. The Chovos HaLevavos expounds on this idea at length in Shaar HaBitachon, explaining through metaphor and allegory many reasons why Bitachon directly allows one to walk through life with less worry, fear, and anxiety. Amalek, who stand for doubting G-d, are not only our enemy for attacking us in the Midbar; Amalek is synonymous with doubt, the enemy of true Simcha.

I heard the following beautiful idea from a close friend, Rachi Amster, who is a middle school Judaic Studies teacher at Yavneh Academy in New Jersey and an incredible, truth-seeking soul. In a commentary on Mishlei (15:30), Metzudas David notes, “ain [baolam] simcha ki’hataras hasfeikos,” there is no joy in the world like the removal or resolution of doubt. This is possibly one of the deepest and most crucial psychological truths in existence: when we are in a state of doubt or uncertainty, it is extremely difficult to feel joy. I have patients who will tell me that the most frustrating experience is when they try to enjoy things in life in an attempt to reduce depression or sadness, and then find worries gripping them, such as fear that their joy will be short-lived, or mundane worries about the next tasks they need to fulfill detracting from the pleasure of that moment. Where there is doubt and uncertainty, it is all the more difficult to access joy. On the flip side, however, where there is an alleviation of doubt, there can be increased joy.

What is the Torah antidote to doubt? What is the remedy to Amalek’s Safek? The answer, as we’ve alluded to above, is Bitachon, faith. The very thing Amalek sought to eradicate is inherently the solution to the problem they represent. When I cling to the faith that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has my back, that everything that happens to me is a prescribed part of my unique life journey, I have nothing to fear. I can tolerate not knowing what the future holds, because I know that Hashem knows what it holds. I can handle not knowing precisely where the chain of events of my life are leading because I know my life is heading where Hashem wants it to – and where else could I possibly want it to lead? Where there is faith, there is no doubt, and where there is no doubt, there is Simcha; it follows, therefore, that where there is faith, there is joy.

We read about Amalek in the month of Adar not only as a prequel to the Purim story, but as a reminder of the obligation to increase our joy, and a means to understand how to accomplish this task. It is no simple thing to feel joy when we are sad, restless, losing hope, or just simply too busy to stop to enjoy life as it is. Increasing our simcha in the month of Adar, before, during, and after Purim, is about taking Amalek’s ideology out of the equation, eradicating Safek by increasing our faith in G-d.

This week, let us seek to vanquish uncertainty, that true enemy of joy, by fortifying our Bitachon and trying to find ways to increase our trust in G-d. As in the Purim story, we may feel that Hashem is hiding from us, and we must try to look for Him. As the Kotzker Rebbe was known for explaining, Hashem is found wherever we let Him in. Let’s let Hashem in, and by so doing, alleviate doubt and uncertainty and experience true Simcha this Shabbos and beyond.

[1] Rosmarin, D. H., Pargament, K. I., Pirutinsky, S., & Mahoney, A. (2010). A randomized controlled evaluation of a spiritually integrated treatment for subclinical anxiety in the Jewish community, delivered via the Internet. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 24(7), 799-808. [2] Rosmarin, D. H., Pargament, K. I., & Mahoney, A. (2009). The role of religiousness in anxiety, depression, and happiness in a Jewish community sample: A preliminary investigation. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 12(2), 97-113

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