2016-06-30
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.

The Scroll of Esther hooks its little novella to Haman; his murderous agenda is clear when we learn that he is a descendant of Amalek. To this threat, as we retell the tale each Purim, the Jews respond first with diplomatic wisdom and then with a delicious, bitter soup of hot revenge that ultimately spills over into violence.

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.

Within days of the 1994 Purim massacre, two women who had been deeply engaged in the struggle to create a feminist Judaism, a psychotherapist and a rabbi, pointed toward new meanings for Amalek.

Barbara Breitman drew on her experience as a psychotherapist who has worked with adults who have been abused as children. She asked us to look carefully at God's command. It has two parts, she pointed out: First, "Remember what Amalek did to you." Then, "When your God brings you safely into the land, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek."

First, she said, the victim must clearly and fully recover the memories of victimization and abuse. But then, when we are no longer weak and powerless, when we are "safe in a good land," we must no longer be obsessed with Amalek; for it is exactly an unrealistic and obsessive fear that will drive us to desperate acts indeed, into acting like Amalek.


Rabbi Tirzah Firestone pointed out that Amalek was a descendant of Esau the grandson of Abraham who was cheated from the birthright and the blessing that would have let him follow in Abraham's footsteps. Amalek, Rabbi Firestone suggests, is part of our own family the residue of rage that sprang from the grief and anger Esau felt. Amalek is always a possibility within us, as well as in others. The Torah is teaching that even as we face the danger of a monstrous enemy without, even a whole people that might be consumed by the murderous spirit of Amalek, we must also blot out the urge to emulate Amalek. Instead, we must turn that urge toward compassion. These are the deepest teachings needed by the Jews, a people that has lived through a past of victimization into a present day of being powerful: Let the memory of utter helplessness cease to obsess us, for there is nothing so dangerous as feeling still a victim while holding great power. And look within ourselves to see the potential for victimizing others. Amalek is not a stranger; we are all in the same family.

As we taste a moment of respite from the spiral of murder that has possessed Israelis and Palestinians these past four years and more, those lessons are what we need to learn from Purim. Since ritual is the crystallization of the values we intend to live, we need to chant the verses where Jews kill Persians in the same mournful way mournful, Lamentation trope we use for the verses where Haman threatens to destroy the Jews.

We need to revive the Fast of Esther the day before Purim, from dawn to sunset. The Rabbis proclaimed the fast to blot out a celebration of national military victory over Hellenism. We could use the fast to clear our minds and purify our hearts. To remind us: We will drink schnapps on Purim to reach a higher level of consciousness in which Bless and Curse are integrated; we do not drink blood so as to blot out the distinction between good and evil.

What does the ritual betoken on the street? How do we turn a deeper spiritual understanding into a more inclusive politics?

The Jews have been powerless for a long time. Indeed, the last time we found a new Torah hidden within the white fire of the Scroll, it was precisely a Torah for becoming powerless, landless, bodiless--and skilled with words. So one of the new elements that demands we search again for new Torah hidden within the old is precisely the reemergence of a Jewish people in the Land of Israel and in many communities throughout the world that is able to have a say in the politics of life.

The late Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel who was murdered in 1995 by a Jewish assassin who opposed his attempts to make peace with the Palestinians, tried to say it again and again: "We are no longer victims and pariahs; we have the power to protect ourselves; we can welcome our cousins as our equals."

If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are to be successful in forging a new path toward peace, they must be be guided by Rabin's vision.

Meanwhile, as part of our religious reeducation, the Fast of Esther could become a time for Jews to meet with the other faith communities in which Amalek crouches and face our worst fears of each other.

Jews could gather with Christians and with Muslims to look at the nightmarish teachings of each of our traditions and to examine how to move beyond them. Then we could sing our chants for one other, read the Psalms that delight all three traditions, feed each other our distinctive breads, and touch each other's foreheads with the oil of anointing.

What does the word "Messiah" mean? "The anointed one." When each of our peoples can anoint the others, we can all begin to enter the messianic harvest of our history.

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