Despite our deepest wish that it not be so, there are people in this world who have no compassion or love. There are people who show no pity or decency. There are people that prey on the helpless and the vulnerable. There are people who will do or say anything to achieve their goals.
In the Torah, we are commanded to remember that which the nation of Amalek did to us when we wandered in the desert: how they attacked us when we were exhausted and vulnerable, how they went after the weak and the elderly, how they struck at the women and children who straggled at the end of the camp. God is at war with Amalek, the Torah declares, from “generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16).
All the people who feel love for their fellow human beings, all the people who have compassion for the suffering of others, all the people who want humanity to live together in peace and mutual respect are engaged in a perpetual struggle against those who have chosen the path of hatred. They are in a constant battle with those who would destroy our faith in the goodness of humankind.
Amalek is fought on many different levels and in many different ways. Each of us has a role to play in this struggle. Each of us has his or her particular task to fulfill. Everyone who takes part in the battle is helping to bring the Will of God into the world.
There are those individuals whose job it is to physically combat the forces of hatred in the world. On the battlefield, they fight to protect their countries. On the home front, they labour to save innocent lives. In the media, they work to counter the barrage of half-truths and lies that would blind us to the presence of Amalek in the world.
There is also another type of worker in this struggle, one whose job is to spread love and compassion even amidst the darkness of Amalek. These individuals work to bring help and succour wherever there is a need. They strive to counter evil through the power of loving-kindness. They battle anger and hatred through the power of their open hearts.
Then there are those individuals whose task is to remind us that Amalek resides inside each and every one of us. They act as a vigilant guard that exhorts us not to let anger, hatred and greed rise inside us – not to let cruelty and violence enter into our consciousness. For the deeper truth is that Amalek is not just a nation, it is a part of the nature of every human being.
The story of the festival of Purim is recounted in the Book of Esther. Purim is one chapter in the battle with Amalek. It is the tale of how Haman – a man with a desire for power, but no love in his heart – plays on the vulnerability of a displaced people and the baser instincts of his countrymen to try and destroy an entire nation.
Therefore, on one level, Purim is the story of how the goodness and integrity of one man, Mordechai, and the courage and faith of one woman, Esther, overcome the power of hatred and save their people in an act of Divine grace.
It is their sudden and total defeat of a great evil at the very moment when all seemed lost that is celebrated on Purim with so much joy and abandon. It is like the joy that we feel when a ray of light breaks through the thick darkness – when a glad tiding is heard in the moment of the deepest despair.
Yet there is another side to the story of Purim. Purim is also a warning. It is a warning about how Amalek can suddenly rise inside each of us. It is a teaching about the capacity of all men and women for both good and evil. It is a reminder that there is not only a Divine spark inside all of us, but also a ‘cinder of Amalek’ as well.
At the climax of the Purim story, after the King has condemned Haman to death and put Mordechai in his place as the prime minister, the king gives his ring with the royal seal to Mordechai and Esther, and tells them to do “whatever is good in their eyes.” At that moment, the anger, fear and humiliation of all that Haman had done to them, and all that he had planned to do to them and their people, rises up inside Mordechai and Esther to become a burning desire to wreck vengeance on their enemies.
With the king’s permission and support, the Jews throughout Persia take up arms against their enemies. Over the next three days, they kill seventy-five thousand men, women and children across the land. And in an act of cruelty, the bodies of the ten sons of Haman are hung on display in a public gallows.
As we read of these ruthless deeds in the Book of Esther, the warning of Shmuel Hakatan in the Ethics of the Fathers (4, 19), resounds in our ears:
“When your enemy falls do not rejoice, and when he stumbles let your heart not be glad, lest the Lord see and it will be displeasing to Him, and He will divert His wrath from him [to you].”
Perhaps there is a hidden element of Divine displeasure that is expressed in the Purim story. It has often been noted that the Name of God is absent from the whole of the Book of Esther – God is not even mentioned once. All kinds of explanations have been given for this omission, but perhaps the real reason is that God did not want His Name associated with the vengeful events that took place on Purim. God wanted His Name left out of the text, just like Moses had asked God to remove Moses’ name from the Torah, when the Lord threatened to destroy all of Israel.
We may wholeheartedly rejoice at the salvation of our people, but we must reject the killing that was done – recoil from the violence that was aroused within the hearts of our people. This is not a path that will lead us to the fulfillment of the Divine command to become a “nation of priests” and a “light unto the nations.”
If this war is to eradicate Amalek from our midst, then we need to acknowledge the fact that there is a part of each of us that can dehumanize others. We too are capable of being cruel and heartless; we too can forget that a spark of God is in even the most foolish, angry or cruel human being. And the more that the power of Amalek rears its head in the world, the more we need to be on guard against the cinder of Amalek that is inside ourselves.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord Krishna is the charioteer of Arjuna, a great warrior about to enter the battlefield. His message to the young warrior is: do your duty with your mind in God.
There are times when we must enter the battlefield and destroy Amalek. There are times when we have no choice but to cause others pain and suffering. Yet, it is at such times that we ourselves are in the greatest danger. It is, as the Purim story warns us, at such times that we are at the greatest risk of losing our humanity and turning into Amalek.
Our only recourse, then, is to do our duty with our mind in God: to try and retain our humanity even as we fight Amalek, to not forgo our compassion and empathy for the suffering of our enemies, to do all we can to minimize unnecessary suffering, and to always remember that they too are God’s beloved children.
A Holocaust survivor, who was an inmate in one of the camps as a teenager, recounts the story of the days following the camp’s liberation by the Russian army. When the extent of the Nazi atrocities had been exposed, the Russian soldiers came over to the surviving young men and offered them their weapons. The Germans who ran the camp, they told the boys, are locked in a fenced in area. For twenty fours hours, you can do with them whatever you want, and we will pretend that we never saw a thing.
The boys thought for a moment and then answered the Russians that they did not want to take revenge on the Germans for what they had done to them. Everything that they once had was taken away from them, they told the Russians, their homes, their families, their possessions – all that remained was their dignity and their humanity. If they killed their persecutors, then even that would be lost, and they themselves would become just like the Nazis.
This is fighting Amalek on the highest level. This is “blotting out the memory of Amalek” in the most profound sense.
This year, as we enter Shabbat Zachor and move into the week of Purim, let us strive to remove Amalek from our own hearts and minds, even as we are forced to confront the Amalek that is in our enemies.
Copyright © 2008, by Yoel Glick
first published 14/3/2008