Reflections on Purim and Peacemaking
Despite the Purim's story's message of revenge against our enemies, we'll all be far safer if we seek higher spiritual ground.
BY: Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Purim approaches. A giddy, hilarious, tipsy holiday, when Jews are masked to hide our ordinary faces and reveal some hidden facet for a flashing moment. We read a crazy story--the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther--under the injunction that we must hear every word, and shatter the reading with noisemaking "groggers" to drown out the name of Haman, an archenemy of the Jews we are obligated to hear.
How shall we approach the lessons of the Purim story this year, at a moment when Israelis and Palestinians are taking new steps toward peace?
It's a story in which foreboding is forestalled, and all has a happy ending. And God does not appear to wag a monitory finger.
Happy, unless we remove the mask of willed amnesia and remember that this Purim is the eleventh since Baruch Goldstein walked into the mosque at the tomb of Abraham our Father in Hebron and gunned down 29 Muslims who were prostrate in prayer, praising the God of Abraham.
Unless we peep through the mask of willed amnesia to realize that Goldstein was probably writing a midrash with his gun. That he probably chose Purim because he was responding to the passage late in the Scroll of Esther when the fantasy of armed and principled resistance to a band of murderous Persians becomes a Jewish fantasy of indiscriminate revenge. After the Persian king grants the Jews the right to defend themselves, they take revenge on their would-be killers by slaughtering 75,000 Persians. Goldstein's Purim slaughter admonishes us to reject a literal interpretation of the Purim story's coda.
At one level, the story that we read on Purim is about a genocidal threat aimed at the Jews, a threat that draws on the archetype of the genocidal tribe of Amalek, grandson of Esau. The Torah tells us that the Amalekites attacked the Israelites from behind, where the sick, the children, and the women were straggling as they fled from Egypt.
In a Torah passage read on the Shabbat before Purim, God admonishes the people of Israel: "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! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
At another level, the story is a joke: What you intend to do to me, that's what happens to you. The wicked prime minister would hang the Jews? He ends up swinging from the gallows that he built for them. The pompous king refuses to take orders from a woman? He ends up doing exactly what Queen Esther tells him to.
But remembering Amalek has a much darker side. Goldstein killed his Palestinian cousins, children of Ishmael, out of his conviction they were out to kill the Jews. Out of his obedience to a very old command: Blot out the name of Amalek.