This Shabbat, synagogues throughout the world, recite one of the most ethically challenging commandments. The mitzvah to recall the war waged by the Amalekites against the Jews appears in several places in the Torah.
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deu. 25:17-19)
This tribe attacked the Jewish people during the escape from Egypt and was the first post-exodus to try to annihilate the Jews. Congregations read this text on the Shabbat before Purim to remember that Haman descended from the tribe of Amalek.
The goal of the recitation extends beyond mere words. In Mitzvah 605, the author of the Sefer HaChinuch writes, “That we were commanded to blot out the seed of Amalek and to destroy his memory from the world – male and female, old and young.” This command seems to be nothing short of a call for genocide. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper recently discussed the moral problems with this command and some of the interpretative methods to struggle with it. He especially critiqued the danger of extending the issue even in rhetorical contexts such as the famous statement by Rabbi Soloveitchik that, according to his father, “Every nation that conspires to destroy the Jewish people is considered by the Halakhah to be Amalek.” I remember being shocked when I first read this passage in Rabbi Soloveithick’s Faith and Destiny. Can it really be that the Rav, as his students called him, suggested we must completely physically destroy entire groups of people who have attacked the Jews? Others have attempted to soften the blow suggested a nuanced view that rejects the military aspect. I want to look at a perspective that extends and even changes our orientations.
In one of his most popular discourses, the Hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, discusses the meaning of Purim. He writes,
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt etc. you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear: he did not fear God. (Deut. 25:17-18) … every person in Israel needs to erase the evil part that is concealed in one’s heart, that is known by the name Amalek. This is because whenever the seed of Amalek is found in the world it is found in the human being, since the human is a small world, and therefore there is a reality to “Amalek”, to the force of evil inside every human being, which arises every time to make a human being sin, and it is regarding this that the remembrance comes in the Torah. “(Kedushat Levi, Exodus, Homily for Purim)
Many have pointed out that Hassidic thinkers reoriented classic rabbinic and Kabbalistic concepts. This reorientation directs outward subjects inward to the human psyche. Rav Levi Yitzchak takes the command to destroy Amalek seriously. He asks a critical question – who or what is Amalek and replies with a Hassidic answer. Amalek is a state of the human soul. Sin stems from that part of ourselves that opposes what is right and good. Our duty is to blot out the evil in our hearts.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner, in Pachad Yitzchak 1, stretches this idea and fills out the psychological dimension of Amalek. In an extensive, complex piece discussing this mitzvah, he suggests that there are two axes of faith. On one axis lies attitudes towards “importance” or “value.” A healthy person recognizes that there exists worth in the world. A person can value money, intelligence, or piety, among other things. What defines a person is what he or she values. The idolater understands importance yet misplaces this value by worshiping idols. The religious personality values God, goodness, piety. The difference between the two is the direction or orientation of their respected systems. If one recognizes value but has a misdirected sense of priorities, growth is possible. The idol worshiper can learn that there is one true God.
However, there is another axis of values. On this axis, lies to opposing poles. One pole represents the person we discussed above, who recognizes the importance. The only question is, “what has value?” The other pole represents the person who does not see anything of value in the world: the nihilistic cynic. For the cynic or nihilist, there is no method of reorientation for his system is warped to the point that nothing has value or meaning. We live, and we die. “Life’s but a walking shadow… a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Amalek, suggests Rav Hutner is a disease of the soul which sees no value, no meaning in life, and no potential for good.” Apathy is a disease that can lead the self towards destruction. It is not a pagan god but a world devoid of any possibility. Amalek is a dangerous cancer of the soul that we must eradicate. Like Rav Levy Yitzchak, Rav Hutner suggests we not look without but within. Can we see the beauty in the world, and can we strive to become tools in bringing more holiness into life?
Classic rabbinic sources acknowledge that God appears absent from the Purim story. In a way, Purim represents the most authentic experience of reality. We, too, don’t readily see God and goodness in the world. Purim is about seeking God. To find the Divine, we must first open ourselves to the potential for the Divine to be in our lives. If you want to repair the world, you first need to believe that the world is worth repairing.
During this challenging time, where a virus is spreading physically, and fear is gripping our societies emotionally, may we find hope in the Purim story. Let us renew our sense of the Divine and accept upon ourselves to work to heal those who need healing.