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Remember What Amalek Did to You: Symbols of Wine and Vinegar

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[When Moses said to the people of Israel,] “Remember what Amalek did to you on the road when you were going out of Egypt,”[1] the people of Israel said to him: “Moses our master! One verse [in Torah] states: ‘Remember what Amalek did to you.’ Another verse states: ‘Remember the day of Shabbat, to sanctify it.’[2] How can both be fulfilled? This one is ‘Remember’ and that one is ‘Remember’!”

Said Moses to them: “A cup of spiced wine is not the same as a cup of vinegar; yet one is a cup and the other is a cup. There is a remembrance to keep and sanctify the day of Shabbat, and there is a remembrance to punish [Amalek]…”

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 44

In the course of our lives as human beings, we are called upon to remember hundreds, if not thousands, of things every day: good things and bad things, beneficial things and adversarial things. Why did the people of Israel have a problem with remembering both the sanctity of Shabbat and the evil of Amalek?

Once we understand Israel’s question, perhaps we’ll understand Moses’ enigmatic answer. What is the common denominator between the two “remembrances” expressed by the analogy that “one is a cup and the other is a cup”? And why is the difference and relationship between them expressed by comparing the memory of Shabbat to a “cup of spiced wine” and the memory of Amalek to “a cup of vinegar”?

The Memory of Shabbat

The significance of Shabbat, as we say in the Friday night Kiddush, is that it is “a remembrance of the work of creation.” By ordering our lives, week after week and year after year, after the original days of creation (six days of work followed by a day of hallowed rest), “we remember the work of creation at all times, perpetually conceding that the world has a Creator.”[3] Thus “we permanently establish in our hearts the belief in the creation of the world by G-d in six days.”[4]

The awareness of G-d’s creation of the world is “at all times,” “perpetual” and “permanent” because, as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains in his Tanya, the act of creation itself is unceasing and perpetual. The ten divine utterances (“Let there be light,” “Let the earth sprout forth vegetation,” etc.) that brought the world into being were not a one-time occurrence, but “stand firmly forever within [every creation] and are forever enclothed within [them] to give them life and existence… For if these letters were to depart even for an instant, G-d forbid, and return to their source, all… would revert to naught and absolute nothingness, and it would be as if they had never existed at all.”[5] G-d is constantly “speaking” the world into being; were He to cease verbalizing His desire for a world for a single instant, the world would cease to be.

The ramifications of such a perspective on creation are many and far-reaching. No longer can the world’s relationship with its Creator be delegated to a single moment at the beginning of time; no longer can we conceive of the world as a programmed machine running under the benign eye of its inventor. G-d does not merely watch over the world, or interfere with the world, or even run the world; He creates it, down to its every particle of matter and its every configuration of forces, in every moment of time. The state of the universe at any given point in time is not merely the result of G-d allowing or compelling it to be so, but of His creating it that way, at that very instant, out of absolute nothingness.

With this perspective on reality, we can begin to understand the Torah’s amazing statement that “there is none else besides Him.”[6] The world and everything it contains; the laws of nature, logic and reality; our own sense of identity and selfhood—these are not realities “besides Him.” They possess no existence of their own, for they are utterly dependent upon Him, at any and every given moment, for their very existence and their every quality.

A Dubious Existence

Amalek, on the other hand, represents the ultimate challenge to G-d’s sovereignty. The Midrash compares the circumstances of Amalek’s attack on Israel “to a tub of boiling water which no creature was able to enter. Along came one evil-doer and jumped into it. Although he was scalded, he cooled it for the others. So, too, when Israel came out of Egypt, and G‑d rent the sea before them and drowned the Egyptians within it, the fear of them fell upon all the nations. But when Amalek came and challenged them, although he received his due from them, he cooled[7] the awe of them for the nations of the world.”[8]

Amalek “recognizes his Master and willfully rebels against Him.”[9] He acknowledges the existence of G-d, acknowledges G-d’s mastery over him, yet he rebels against Him. Amalek does not deny the truth, or evade the truth, or justify his deeds in any way. He simply challenges the truth, knowing that he will fail, knowing that he will be hurt, driven only by an all-consuming need to assert his independence from G-d.

How, then, wondered the people of Israel, can the memory of Shabbat co-exist with the memory of Amalek’s deed? When the Torah commands us to “remember” something, it is telling us to maintain a perpetual awareness of the thing, to ingrain it in our fundamental vision of reality. Indeed, the mitzvah to remember Shabbat and the mitzvah to remember Amalek’s deed are both defined by Torah law as such.[10] But if the significance of Shabbat is truly internalized, can Amalek be taken seriously? If everything is the exclusive product of the divine volition, can there be any true existence to a phenomenon such as Amalek? One might perhaps conceive of beings that are ignorant of the basis and essence of their own existence; but a being who knows that G-d is his master and nevertheless rebels against Him?

To one who is truly aware of the nature of creation and its utter dependence upon G-d, Amalek is a nonentity, a phantom devoid of all existential validity. How can such a person carry within him a perpetual awareness of Amalek’s deed? How can he be driven to combat something that, to him, does not and cannot exist?

Life as a Meal

In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi speaks of the internal struggles experienced by most every man. There are righteous individuals (tzaddikim) who have so completely transformed their nature that they desire only good; in them, the natural selfishness and rebelliousness of the human heart has been supplanted by a selfless devotion to G-d, to the extent that anything that is contrary to the divine will is literally repulsive to them. But such individuals are extremely rare; most people struggle for their entire lifetime against the negative traits and desires that are part of the inborn character of man.

However, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the fact that, for most of us, the struggle continues for as long as we live does not mean that our lives are an exercise in futility. For “there are two kinds of gratification before G-d. One, from the complete annihilation of evil… by the righteous. The second, from the subjugation of evil while it is still at its strongest and most powerful… through the efforts of the ordinary man.

“This is the deeper significance of the verse, ‘Make for me delicacies, such as I love’[11]—delicacies, in the plural, to indicate two types of gratification… The analogy is to earthly food, in which there likewise exist two kinds of relishes: sweet and luscious foods, and tart and sour foods which have been spiced and fixed in such a way that they are made into delicacies which revive the soul.

“This,” concludes Rabbi Schneur Zalman, “is the meaning of the verse, ‘G-d has made everything for His own sake, even the evildoer for the day of evil,’[12] meaning that the evildoer should repent of his evil and turn his evil into ‘day’ and light.”[13]

The feast of life includes both wine and vinegar, and the vinegar, too, contributes to the tastiness of the meal. Of course, one must know how to use the vinegar. If one drinks it as one drinks his wine, his meal would be ruined. But when the taste of the vinegar is mitigated and tamed by other ingredients, its very sourness yields a “delicacy to gratify the soul.”

When a person indulges his instinctive ego and rebelliousness as one should indulge one’s positive traits— directly and uninhibitedly—the result is an “evildoer,” and, when taken to the extreme, an Amalek. But when these are moderated and channeled to constructive ends, the result is a “delicacy of the second sort”—a tasty dish concocted out of “the subjugation of the evil while it is still at its strongest and most powerful.”

The Source of Evil

To carry the analogy further, vinegar is a derivative of wine. Vinegar is wine “gone bad,” its natural sweetness and spice deteriorated to virulent sourness.

By the same token, G-d, who is the essence of good, is the ultimate and exclusive source of every existence. Not only the “wine” of life comes from the divine vineyard, but also its “vinegar,” which is actually the offspring of the wine.

There is nothing original to evil. The depraved lusts that inhabit the cellar of the human heart are but the convoluted expressions of its purest loves. The violence that man is capable of is but the corruption of his holiest passions. The most self-destructive addictions are but the soul’s nurturing instincts gone awry.

The rebelliousness of Amalek, too, has a holy source. G-d desires that we challenge Him and has imbued us with the courage to do so. He wants us to contest His conduct when we encounter pain and suffering in His world, as Abraham and Moses protested His decrees against the sinners of Sodom and the worshippers of the Golden Calf, even as we acknowledge the justice and goodness of everything He does and our inability to fathom His ways. By giving us the Torah, He communicated to us His wisdom and will and then told us that “it is no longer in heaven” but entrusted to the finite mind of the Torah sage to interpret and apply. The Talmud relates how when a heavenly voice intervened in support of one opinion in a debate between sages on a point of Torah law, “Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: ‘The Torah is not in heaven’”; G-d’s response was to smile and say “You have triumphed over Me, my children; you have triumphed over Me.”[14]

These challenges are “rebellions” of a holy sort, stemming from a profound faith in G-d, a selfless devotion to His will, and a true appreciation of what He desires from us. But G-d wanted more than the wine of faithful contest. So He distilled from it the vinegar of Amalek—a negative, egotistical rebelliousness that is the antithesis of everything holy—and charged us to vanquish Amalek and exploit its sourness by “spicing it and fixing it” as a delicacy of the second sort, mitigating and redirecting its selfishness and independence as a constructive force in our service of G-d.

The Two Cups

So the remembrance of Shabbat and its message that everything comes from G-d and is utterly servant to Him, and the awareness of the challenge presented by an Amalek who “recognizes his Master and willfully rebels against Him,” are fully compatible with each other. The one is wine, the pristine nectar of divine truth. The other is vinegar, a derivative of that very wine—a corrupt and soured derivative, but a derivative all the same.

As Moses tells the children of Israel, “one is a cup and the other is a cup.” Despite their very different tastes, both are vessels of G-dliness served up to the table of life by the divine caterer; both are part of “All that G-d made, He made for His own sake.” The one is a cup of wine to be relished as is, a direct infusion of joy and flavor into our sanctification of life. The other is a cup of vinegar, belonging to the “tart and sour” elements of life. These we are to “spice and fix in such a way that they are made into delicacies which revive the soul.”

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Parshat Zachor 5732 (February 26, 1972)[15]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

 


[1]. Deuteronomy 25:17.

[2]. Exodus 20:8.

[3]. Nachmanides on Exodus, ibid.

[4]. Sefer HaChinuch, Positive Commandment 31.

[5]. Tanya, part II, ch. 1.

[6]. Deuteronomy 4:35.

[7]. The Hebrew word karcha, “he encountered you,” employed by the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:18) to describe Amalek’s attack on Israel, also translates as “he cooled you.”

[8]. Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 9.

[9]. Derech Mitzvotecha, 13b, 95a (after Torat Kohanim, Leviticus 26:12).

[10]. See Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 5:5; Maimonides’ list of mitzvot in his introduction to Mishneh Torah, Positive Commandment 189; Sefer Chareidim, Positive Commandments Involving Speech, 4:21; Nachmanides on Exodus 20:8; Sforno, ibid.; Rashi on Exodus 13:3 and 20:8; commentaries on Rashi, ibid.; Ohr HaTorah, Parshat Zachor, p. 1797. Cf. the “Six Remembrances” recited each day after the morning prayers.

The mitzvot of remembering Shabbat and remembering Amalek’s deed have both an aspect of speech and an aspect of thought. The verbal part of these mitzvot is fulfilled by reciting the Kiddush every Shabbat and publicly reading the Torah section of Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) once a year, on the Shabbat before Purim. The thought aspect of these mitzvot (according to the halachic opinions cited above) is constant, requiring a perpetual awareness.

[11]. Genesis 27:4. These words, spoken by Isaac to Esau, are allegorically interpreted by the Zohar as G-d addressing the people of Israel.

[12]. Proverbs 16:4.

[13]. Tanya, ch. 27.

[14]. Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b; cf. ibid., 86a.

[15]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XIX, pp. 221-226.

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