The cynic in the corner of our heart

So what did Amalek do that was so terrible? What about Amalek warrants such an unforgiving approach?

Children of foreign workers on Purim 390 (photo credit: Reuters))
Children of foreign workers on Purim 390
(photo credit: Reuters))
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 Amalek.
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?
Amalek 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 mission.
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.
Years later, 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 stuff.
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.
“You 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.
The 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.
So, for 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 protected]