Purim is such a happy day, but lurking in the background is the unforgiving
mitzvah of eradicating all memory of Amalek. Amid all the merrymaking, gifts of
food and charity to the poor, what are we supposed to make of a mitzvah with
such a violent tone?
The happy, slightly besotted and be-costumed Jew, who in a
fit of passion, a ferocious glint in his eye, lets loose with a cranking of his
lethal graggar (noisemaker) at the mention of Haman, does not bring a very
militant image to our minds, but the fact is that the mitzvah of eradicating
Amalek does jar our ears.
It just seems so foreign to the Judaism we are
familiar with – the Judaism where we pour out a little of our wine on Seder
night, as we mention the plagues that befell Egypt in order to mitigate our
enjoyment; the Judaism that tells us to help our enemy to unload his donkey
before we help our friend; the Judaism that tells us, in Pirkei Avot, “When your
enemy falls, don’t rejoice.”
In fact, compared to what we suffered at the
hands of Egypt, the technical details of what Amalek did are sparse and at first
glance don’t seem to warrant such a dramatic reaction: Amalek attacked us from
behind. They targeted the weak and the tired, and they “did not fear God.” For
that we are to eradicate every vestige of their existence?
The violent reaction
to Amalek is so out of proportion that it seems clear there is something else
going on here. After 210 years of slavery in Egypt we are told “do not despise
Egypt” because, after all, they hosted you in their country for hundreds of
years. But Amalek, which just attacked us once, becomes our eternal enemy?
Clearly, this is not about revenge.
Indeed, it is interesting to note how
the Jewish people have comfortably let the technical parameters of this mitzvah
fall into disuse, always with the justification, that this mitzvah cannot be
performed because we don’t actually know who Amalek is today. Rabbi Samson
Raphael Hirsch tells us that this change in focus is reflected in the language
of the verse, which focuses on destroying specifically the “memory” of
For whatever reason, the fact that historically there has never
arisen among the Jewish people a movement to revive this mitzvah has forced us
to grapple with its metaphysical connotations.So what did Amalek do that
was so terrible? What about Amalek warrants such an unforgiving approach?
attacked right after a slave nation – downtrodden, beaten, lacking spirit – was
given a hint of a vision of what they could become. Deep in the quicksand of
constant, unrelenting labor, where all they could see was the mud, and the
endless, dirty plodding towards meaninglessness and nothingness, there was a
glimmer of light. The Hand that reached down and plucked the Jewish people out
of the quagmire of Egypt spoke of love and caring. And that love and caring came
with a subtitle: There is a goal and a purpose.
Infused with a new
spirit, buoyed by the message that this dark and scary world is not so dark and
scary, the nation began its tentative journey toward Sinai and toward its
THE NATIONS of the world were stunned into silence. The
destruction of the superpower of the world, by a Super Power, shook the concrete
foundation of belief in a meaningless world. Suddenly, the jury was still
out on meaning and purpose.
And then one nation came charging down the
gangplank. The Jewish people were not on Amalek’s turf, nor even near
their land. Amalek traveled far to battle. This was a personal war – a battle to
the death. The viciousness with which they fought underscored their panic and
desperation. If there is a nation that bespeaks the supernatural, if there is
someone who clings to a higher vision, that means I can never relax on my
armchair again. Even if they ask nothing of me, it is their very presence among
us, with their talk of humanity and obligation, their emphasis on responsibility
and morality, that takes all the zing out of my can of soda.
Haman, the descendant of Amalek (and perhaps the ancestor of Hitler), echoed
these same sentiments. Those people have got to go.
When Amalek attacked,
wonder and awe were jaded. The world got its bearings back, and could go back to
not sweating the small stuff – and, as we all know – it’s all small
Amalek was the wisecrack in the back of the room. Just as the soul
stirs, and begins to entertain the possibility that all those inchoate yearnings
have substance, someone makes a joke. And soundlessly, the window slides shut.
Relax. There is nothing out there after all.
But it is too easy and too
tempting to talk about Amalek as an external evil. Amalek, with all its
ferocious reality, only holds a mirror up to us so that we can see ourselves.
Deep inside us, is that same little Amalek, saying the same thing.
think this world can be a better, more moral place? You think you can make a
difference? You think you were chosen for a mission? Don’t be so awkwardly naïve
and embarrassingly unsophisticated!”
Amalek attacks when we are “tired and
weak,” when our self-confidence and connection to God is shaky. He rips the joy
of purposefulness out from under our feet and runs away laughing.
essence of Amalek, inside and out, rebels at the idea of something to strive
for. If we take the top off the mountain, then we are already there. It takes
courage to keep the mountain peak intact and to keep climbing.
the peace-loving Jew with lethal gragger in hand, the message comes through very
clearly: While evil exists and must be eradicated at its source, our celebration
of Purim throughout our long history has focused on destroying the self-hating
tyrant in our own little hearts, who waves his hatchet menacingly, beseeching us
to live a life of mediocrity and superficiality.
True, Purim tells us to
fight the enemy. But the enemy has not proven to be an unknown evil nation, but
the idol of cynicism that threatens to engulf us. Purim is a day of love and
joy, not violence and anger, when salvation by a Hidden Hand rests us on the
delicate soap bubble of hope and purpose.The writer lectures weekly to
hundreds of Israeli university students on Jewish thought, through the
organization Nefesh Yehudi. She welcomes comments and questions and can
be reached at email@example.com