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.
The Talmud says that on Purim, we are to get just drunk enough to not know the difference between "Baruch (Blessed) Mordechai" and "Aror (Cursed) Haman." For Purim is the day of inversions, inside-outs, of turning the world upside-down, oscillating between hilarity and grotesquerie.
Goldstein had become so drunk on blood that he could no longer tell the difference in his own identity between baruch, blessed, and aror, cursed. He could no longer tell the difference between becoming the murderer Haman and becoming the healer Mordechai. What have we learned, as we approach this eleventh Purim since the name of Goldstein, a Jewish Amalek, came pouring from every radio, too loud for blotting out by the "No no no no no no no" that came pouring out from Jews here and there around the planet?
What have we learned from the Palestinian rage spawned by Aror Goldstein, from the Israeli fear spawned by that Palestinian rage? What have we learned from the curfew imposed by Israeli power upon the Palestinians of Hebron lest they endanger the Israelis settled in their city? What have we learned from the past four years in which Palestinians renewed their rain of bloody terror on the streets of Israel? What have we learned from Israel's reoccupation of the lands that were to become a Palestinian state, assassination of people it claimed were terrorists, and military actions that killed children, women, the sick, the old?
We have learned that it is time to understand "Amalek" in a new way. The Torah and the Scroll of Esther tell the tales of moments when Jews were powerless. In such moments, the fantasy of wiping out all those who wear the face of "enemy" may be a purgative.
But Goldstein had a gun, not a grogger. Behind him stood the powerful Israeli army. He could blot out not the word "Haman" but the lives, the flesh and blood, of those prostrate in prayer. The army could reoccupy, assassinate, bomb.
In a new and deeper understanding of Torah, "blotting out the memory of Amalek" must come to mean something other than murder. The key to a deeper spiritual understanding is seeing that a spark of Amalek may arise not only in outsiders and enemies but also in our selves.