I am thinking about deeper and darker layers to Purim, layers that challenge us as a people to grow spiritually. Last Shabbat was Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembering. At the end of Parashat Ki Tetze in the Book of Devarim/Deuteronomy, the Torah commands us to remember what Amalek did to our ancestors. Amalek attacked Bene Yisrael as they were traveling in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt. The people must have been both elated and traumatized. Amalek took the opportunity to attack from behind, the weak, the elderly, the defenseless and the exhausted. Amalek is unlike any other enemy in the Torah. Amalek is not like Egypt or Midian. Amalek is so different that God commands an eternal battle against Amalek in every generation. The Torah commands us to “erase Amalek’s name from under the sun; do not forget!” No sooner than Amalek’s name will be blotted from memory, will Amalek reappear in the next generation.
Rashi, commenting on the word, “Amalek,” quotes an ancient midrash that suggests a psychological dimension to the meaning of a struggle with Amalek. Rashi wondered why Amalek appeared at that exact moment. Applying a classical hermeneutic tool called semichat parshiot, Rashi contextualized Amalek’s attack again our ancestors. He noted that only moments earlier, despite all of the miracles God had performed on behalf of the people in Egypt and now in the wilderness, the Israelites were complaining and had expressed doubts about God’s presence in the world. Then Rashi quotes a midrashic parable:
“There was once a father carrying his young son on his shoulders. When the boy looked down and saw an object he wanted, he called out to his father, “Dad! Give me that!” and the father did. Again this happened, and again the father complied. A third time the boy looked down, saw something he desired, and asked his father for it. Then, as the two continued walking, they came upon a fellow traveler. The boy, still sitting atop his father’s shoulders, looked at the stranger and asked him, ‘Have you seen my father?'”
Rashi concluded, “Since they forgot that God was always present, the next event was the attack of Amalek.” The midrashic tradition links the appearance of Amalek with our consciousness of God’s presence in the world. Rashi clearly understands the war against Amalek as a physical phenomenon, yet he associates the struggle with the quality of our awareness, with our spiritual consciousness, with the way in which we think will ultimately affect how we behave.
Rabbi Mordechai Leiner of 18th c. Poland in the town of Ishebtz, went further. Writing within a strand of the tradition of hasidic mysticism, the Ishbitzer Rebbe identifies Amalek as the yetzer haRa, our own “evil inclination.” The Yetzer is that dimension of our thinking, feeling and being that seduces us with our own ambitions, desires, and passions. It is the force inside of us that can overwhelm our sense of proportion and balance, resulting in everlasting dissatisfaction, in a lust for power, and in arrogance. This is precisely what Rabbi Leiner wrote in his book the Mei Shiloach, on the word, “Amalek” at the end of Ki Tetze. The eternal war against Amalek is the eternal war within the soul of humanity, inside of every person. The Ishbitzer Rebbe completely internalized the war against Amalk in every generation.
Amalek was the progenitor of Haman. Moshe struggled against Amalek, Shmuel the Prophet struggled against Aggag, and Mordechai and Esther struggled against Haman. It seems to me, therefore, that if the struggle against Amalek can be understood as an internal struggle to combat the seductive force of ambition, self-aggrandizement, arrogance, and the lust for power, then that was the struggle against Haman as well. Each of us, and the Jewish people collectively, have an Amalek/Haman inside of us. We can easily become Mordechai or Haman. We are capable of behaving as Haman behaved. Indeed, the struggle, as the Ishbitzer stated, is to work hard in order not to allow our ambitions to control us, and until our sense of humility in God’s presence becomes our natural state of awareness. Before that can happen, though, we must fight against that part of ourselves that becomes oblivious to God’s presence in the world. My fear as an educator, parent and grandparent, is that humanity has become arrogant and Godless, even in the name of religion. Our inner Haman sees only what we want, blind to others. Our inner Haman knows only power, and might, and violence, and conspiracy, and the mendacious manipulation of laws and the justice system to construct realities at the expense of the suffering of others. That is what Haman did in the Megillah; he had the king pass laws to serve his political needs.
Perhaps a lesson this year from Purim is to demand a deeper level of honesty with ourselves as a people, and to demand that we admit that we, as a Jewish people, are as capable of turning into Haman as we are into Mordechai; perhaps even more capable now that as a sovereign majority in Israel and an empowered minority in America, the seductive nature of power is hard to control. The Jewish people will fail to respond to life’s demands with humility instead of arrogance at our own fatal risk. That’s what happened to Haman.