Purim is such a happy day, but amidst all the merrymaking, gifts of food and charity to the poor, lurks the seemingly incongruous mitzvah to eradicate the memory of Amalek.
Historically, Jews don’t seem to be able to muster up a lot of aggression even in the best of circumstances. 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 at the mention of Haman, is about as militant as the Purim spirit seems to produce.
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, to mitigate some of our enjoyment as we mention the plagues that befell Egypt; the Judaism that tells us to help our enemy to load 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 G-d’. For that we are to eradicate every vestige of their existence?
This reaction to Amalek is especially jarring against the backdrop of what we are told regarding Egypt who enslaved us for 210 years: “do not despise Egypt”, because, after all, they hosted you (!) in their country for hundreds of years. So, why does Amalek, who just attacked us once, becomes our eternal enemy? Obviously, there must be more here than meets the eye.
In fact, it is interesting to note how the Jewish people have comfortably let the technical parameters of this mitzvah fall into disuse, with the justification that this mitzvah cannot be done because we don’t actually know today who Amalek is. As it turns out, for thousands of years, the Amalek we have been fighting has been symbolic.
So what is it about Amalek that warrants such an unforgiving approach?
Amalek attacked right after a slave nation, downtrodden, beaten, lacking in any sense of spirit—was given a hint of a vision. Deep in the quicksand of constant, unrelenting labor, where all the Jewish people 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 care. And that love and care 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 towards Sinai and towards its mission.
The nations of the world were stunned into silence by the destruction of Egypt– the superpower of the world–by a Super Power. It shook the solid foundation of their belief in a meaningless world. Suddenly, things were not so clear anymore. The jury was still out on meaning and purpose.
And then one nation–Amalek– 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 walking around 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 grandchild of Amalek, echoed these same sentiments. Those people—scattered among us– 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 modern culture assures us–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. Chill. There is nothing out there after all.
But, it is too easy and too tempting to talk about Amalek as the evil on the outside. Amalek with all its ferocious energy only holds a mirror up to us so that we can see ourselves. Any external, physical war, plays it self out on the inside, too.
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 uncool!” 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–far above us– and to keep climbing.
So, for the peaceloving Jew with a lethal gragger in his hand, the message comes through very clearly: Evil exists and it must be eradicated at its source, but our celebration of Purim over the centuries has focused on 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 only an unknown evil nation, but the god 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, beckons us to a life of meaning, and rests us on the delicate soap bubble of hope and purpose.
Miriam Kosman is a lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, and she teaches Jewish Thought to hundreds of Israeli university students each week. She is the author of Circle, Arrow, Spiral, Exploring Gender in Judaism and has written for various publications, including The Jerusalem Post, Mishpacha and Aish.com.