Parashat Mishpatim: Optimism and pessimism square off

This story is yet another chapter in the battle between Amalek and the Jewish nation.

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18, is read on February 13, Illustrative photo (photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18, is read on February 13, Illustrative photo
(photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
Purim, the happiest day in the Jewish calendar, marks historic events that took place 2,500 years ago in the Persian Empire.
In short: A senior minister in the empire quarreled with another minister. The problem was that one was from the seed of Amalek and the other was a Jew, making the quarrel both historic and religious.
Mordechai, the Jewish minister, refused to bow down to Haman, the Amalekite minister, leading to Haman deciding to destroy the entire Jewish nation. This planned genocide had already gotten the approval of the Persian king, Ahasuerus, and letters about it were sent throughout the empire. Only due to the involvement of Queen Esther, who was a relative of Mordechai, did the Persian king change his mind, hang Haman, and allow the Jews in the empire to defend themselves.
So, in short, this story is yet another chapter in the battle between Amalek and the Jewish nation.
This is a battle that began at the Exodus from Egypt, when the miracles and wonders provoked reactions in the ancient world. The nations that lived in the area between Egypt and Canaan became alarmed and were afraid of the newly liberated nation of slaves. But there was one nation, a nation of wanderers with a particularly cruel culture, called Amalek, that attacked the Jewish nation while it was still in the desert.
Since then, for a thousand years, there has been tension between Jews and Amalek that erupts every so often in another cycle of violence.
The Torah presents Amalek as a polar opposite of the Jewish nation. The struggle between them is described as an eternal one, so much so that our sages had a particularly strong saying about it, “As long the seed of Amalek is in the world, His [God’s] name is not complete and His throne is not complete” (Midrash Tanhuma, Ki Tetze). The Divine presence in the world is not complete as long as Amalek exists.
It is important to note, and commentators and rabbinical authorities emphasize this, that the struggle is not racial. It is cultural. Today, the Amalek nation is not known, but even when it was, had the Amalekites related to the Jewish nation fairly, the struggle with them would have ended (Maimonides, Laws of Kings, chap. 6).
It is an ideological struggle that could, in principle, exist today as well. There are those who, with good reason, identified Nazism as an “Amalekite” outlook. The struggle against evil continues.
The sages of the midrash contrasted two verses in the Torah that use similar language: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” as opposed to “Remember what the Amalekites did to you.”
What is the contrastive connection between Shabbat and Amalek? Shabbat is a Jewish concept, but why is it contrasted with Amalekite ideology?
To answer this, we first have to try to understand a bit about evil. Where did Amalek’s cruelty stem from? Why were the Amalekites so keen to draw their swords?
Amalek’s perception of reality is that of a power struggle. Strength is the only way to survive a cruel reality, and the stronger you are, the greater your chances are of succeeding. Amalek’s pure evil stems from this negative perception of reality.
Of all the ideas and commandments in Judaism, Shabbat represents the opposite view. Shabbat expresses the completeness of creation, the goodness of existence. Shabbat calls upon Jews to join God in a celebration of the creation of the universe. On Shabbat, we are told to take pleasure in simple existence, without working and without worries or concerns.
Shabbat focuses on a positive reality; Amalek focuses on a negative one. Shabbat calls upon us to focus on the good; Amalek focuses solely on the bad. Shabbat teaches us to be optimistic and happy; Amalek, to be pessimistic and tense. A Jew who keeps Shabbat learns to acknowledge and believe in the Divine plan of creation, as opposed to Amalek, which recognizes only one path to success – the use of force.
The eternal call for us to fight Amalek is actually a call to set up an alternative to its perception of the world. Faith in God and keeping Shabbat are the best way to erase the name of Amalek.
Purim reminds us of all of this. The battle between Haman and Mordechai expressed the perpetual struggle between the Jewish people and Amalek. The miracle that occurred way back when in the Persian Empire instructs us to hold on to our Jewish faith and stay away from Amalekite pessimism and aggressiveness.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.