13 Adar 5764
On this Shabbat before Purim, we have a special maftir, “Remember what Amaleq did to you.” It is a mitzva to remember Amaleq and his descendants and to orally recall their iniquity. We fulfill the mitzva when we hear the maftir, but not only are we to remember, we are also told that we must not forget. “You shall erase the memory of Amaleq from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.” By this the sages tells us that we must not only remember orally, we must also not forget in our hearts.
We’re commanded to read this passage before Purim because our tradition identifies Haman as the descendant of Agag, King of Amaleq. So the wiping out of Amaleq is linked to the wiping out of Haman.
So who is Amaleq?
We pick up the story with the Children of Israel having witnessed the awesome power of God who redeemed them from slavery with signs and wonders. They’ve crossed the Red Sea and seen the Egyptian forces drowned. They’ve heard Miriam’s song and received mana. They’re shlepping toward Har Sinai and they stop at Refidim. They’re tired and thirsty and the oasis is dry. Despite the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night and all these other direct manifestations of God’s covenant with them, they begin to complain about the water. Why did God bring them here? “Is God amongst us or not?” Where is God when you need Him? Moshe is exasperated and says “What am I going to do with these people?” God says “Don’t worry, take your rod and hit the rock.” So he gives the rock a kanock and water erupts from the rock. It is at this point that we read, “Then came Amaleq.”
Amaleqites were a fierce Bedouin people who did not live near Refidim. They didn’t have to attack. The Israelites were not an imminent threat. But they did attack and they are infamous because they did so in the most vicious way by attacking the rear of the column, the stragglers and the weakest.
For the first time the Children of Israel must organize themselves for battle, and Joshua leads them in what becomes an epic all day battle. Moshe stands on a hill with his rod. In describing the actual battle with Amaleq, the Torah says: “When Moses raised his hand, Israel was stronger. And when Moses lowered his hand, Amaleq was stronger.” After a while Moses can’t keep his arms up. Joshua and the Israelites only prevail when Aaron and Hur have Moses sit down on a rock and each holds up an arm. Amaleq is defeated. And the Israelites are headed for Har Sinai.
How do we fulfill the commandment to remember Amaleq?
This depends on what meaning we make of the events described, and our tradition offers three distinct interpretations. While not mutually exclusive, each interpretation leads to its own way of “remembering Amaleq.”
The first interpretation considers Amaleq a representation of our own doubts and weaknesses of faith. The sages focus on the events before the attack, the Israelites challenging the presence of God. It is this that opens the door for Amaleq. The sages noted that the numerical value of Amaleq is 240, the same value as the Hebrew word safeq meaning doubt. Amaleq uses as one of his battle weapons doubt about the presence of God. The Torah says that “Amaleq battled Israel in a place called Refidim.” A midrash explains that the name Refidim is a contraction of Hebrew words meaning “they loosened their grip on Torah.” As long as Jews are diligent in study of Torah, Amaleq can have no dominion upon us. So, when Moses raised his hand, Israel was stronger. And when Moses lowered his hand, Amaleq was stronger and this symbolized to the sages that when our people raise their hands to God, when we live a Torah life, then doubt and chaos lose their power over us, but when we turn away from Torah, Amaleq immediately rises again. Thus, the commandment to remember and not forget Amaleq is interpreted into personal terms as an exhortation for a Torah life. Moreover, in the account of the fierce battle with Amaleq, Joshua and the Israelites only prevail when Aaron and Hur made Moses sit down and they supported his hands. In this is also seen a message about the communal support that is needed to overcome inner doubt. We must support each other in our struggles with our inner Amaleq. “Remember Amaleq” means to call forth faith in the presence of moral challenges.
A second interpretation describes Amaleq as chaos and Denial of God’s order in the world around us. The Talmud takes up deeper meanings of Amaleq when it considers the phrase from Deuteronomy “Amaleq happened (karekha) upon you. Karekha literally means coincidence or happenstance. Amaleq stands for randomness, chaos, a universe without God’s order. The verse in Deuteronomy continues, “And Amaleq did not fear God.” Thus he becomes the opposition to Torah. God’s world has purpose and meaning with an absolute standard of morality. Amaleq opposes that order. In remembering and not forgetting Amaleq we are being told to recognize and fight the enemies of Torah. To be a good person is to actively seek the destruction of evil. We are exhorted in Exodus to “Erase the memory of Amaleq from under Heaven”” and we do so by seeking Justice, Justice, Justice. This is not only a call to fight anti-semitism, but to promote God’s order by standing up to injustice wherever we see it.
The third interpretation takes the text much more literally. It is seen as a sanguinary call to exterminate anti-semites wherever they are. Indeed it takes less interpretive gymnastics to see it this way. A midrash says that when Esau was getting old, he called in his grandson Amaleq and said, “I tried to kill Jacob but was unable. Now I am entrusting you and your descendants with the important mission of annihilating Jacob’s descendants. Be relentless and do not show mercy.”
Amaleq becomes for the Jewish tradition a symbol of evil forces that want to destroy us as a people, and we are obligated to destroy them first. King Saul failed to utterly destroy Amaleq as he had been commanded and as a consequence lost his kingship and was slain by an Amaleqite. Megilat Esther in chapter 9 brings to a conclusion the events of the story with permission for the Jews to defend themselves. They decimate Haman and his tribe, with a truly frightful body count.
Haman, Hitler, and most alarmingly even the Palestinians are lumped together as descendants of Amaleq. For those Jews who want to read the text in this way, sparing Amaleq at the expense of Israel defies the will of God. It may even be seen as a positive commandment to commit genocide. “Remember Amaleq” starts to sound like “Remember the Alamo” — a justification for going to war. Lest we think that this interpretation is historical and not contemporary, we have only to recall Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Israeli doctor who became a fundamentalist. On the 14th day of Adar 1994, he killed 29 innocents Muslims at morning prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. He was then beaten to death by survivors and a riot broke out in which 26 Palestinians and 2 Israelis were killed. Baruch Goldstein has become a hero among some of Israel’s right-wing extremists. They set up a tombstone for him that reads, “Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein, blessed be the memory of the righteous and holy man, may the Lord avenge his blood, who devoted his soul to the Jews — He was killed as a martyr of God on Purim.”
This view may remind some of us of the Muslim term jihad. I am told in secondary sources that jihad came in response to the time in the life of prophet, Muhammed, when he was under attack. And it turns out that the Muslims interpret the meaning of jihad in three ways.
The highest form of jihad is a Personal Jihad — a jihad of the soul. It is the intimate struggle to purify the soul of evil influence both subtle and overt. It is the struggle to cleanse one’s spirit of sin. This is the most important level of jihad.
Then there is the Verbal Jihad, which is to speak the truth in the face of a tyrant. The Prophet Mohammed encouraged raising one’s voice in the name of Allah on behalf of Justice.
The third is Physical Jihad. This is combat waged in defense of Muslims against oppression and transgression by the enemies of Allah and Muslims.
Thus, we find ourselves with parallels between Islam and Judaism in how we might interpret our obligations. Remember Amaleq and jihad: A spiritual inner battle, a fight for justice, or a call for physical destruction of our enemies.
That these two great monotheistic religions should develop similar frameworks for interpreting their respective historical traumas suggests that there may be a common psychology at work — an effort to make meaning from disasters so terrifying and wanton — that they challenge our fundamental sense of a God ordered universe and our ability to cope individually and as a society.
In the lifetimes of the congregants assembled here, we have been exhorted to Remember Pearl Harbor, Remember the Holocaust, Remember 9/11. September 11 is probably most vivid because of its recency.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I were in New York and had dinner with a couple, Isaac and Miriam, that lived across from the Twin Towers. Their five-year-old daughter had watched from her bedroom window as the second plane crashed into the towers. She hadn’t seen the first because she was in bed reading a book. She watched the towers crumble. Every time she does a drawing, a collage, or an art project there is always some reminder in it of that day. “See Momm, these are stairs we ran down when we had to be evacuated.” Miriam says that Issac is really good with Rachel. He made a book with her. She drew the pictures and he wrote the story. They called it Last Man Down and it tells the story of the courage of firefighters and rescue workers. Isaac always reminds Rachel that there were 3,000 killed but there were also 30,000 who were saved.
After they were evacuated, they spent a year and a half away from their home while the area was being cleaned up. Isaac says that he got an even nicer apartment for his family, one overlooking Central Park, because he was not going to let his family feel that they had been defeated by the attack. Now they are back in their home and Rachel’s bedroom window looks out over Ground Zero.
On the anniversary date of the attack, Miriam and her two teenage sons sit silently before the television as it scrolls the names of the 3,000 victims. Miriam told Raina and me that her mother had escaped Germany in 1938 by going to England. She lived through the London Blitz. After the war she and her husband settled into a comfortable life in Riverdale. Miriam was always critical of her mother because she never wanted to go anywhere. She preferred being at home and always seemed somewhat fearful of the broader world. Now, Miriam tells us that she refuses to fly. She won’t go near an airplane, and her daughter accuses her of spoiling their vacation plans. Miriam says, “Now I understand my mother in a way I never could before.”
Isaac, his wife and children are a resilient family. Exposed to one of our nations most traumatic experiences, they carry on. They will never forget 9/11 but neither have they been psychologically damaged by it. How well did most people in NY deal with 9/11?
There have been a few survey studies and it turns out that one month after 9/11 over 40% of those with direct exposure had not a single symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Only about 8% met criteria for the diagnosis and most showed a rapid decline in symptoms over time with less than 2% at four months and 1% at six months.
People who study resilience point out that there are a number of factors that can predict how well someone will handle severe trauma. These come from studies of hospitalized survivors of motor vehicle accidents, combat veterans, people who lived through the Los Angeles riots, the Oklahoma City bombings and many other tragedies. While degree of exposure is the greatest predictor, other individual characteristics include a good temperament, secure early attachments and relationships, good education and intelligence, expressive emotional style, family supports and, very importantly for this discussion, the ability to convert the experience no matter how horrible into something that has meaning. People are hardy and resilient who are committed to finding meaningful purpose in life, who believe that they can influence their surroundings and the outcome of events and who believe that they can learn and grow from both positive and negative experiences.
In looking at our national response to 9/11 we can see something of the three approaches to meaning that I’ve been talking about. We look inward to consider why we were so unprepared and taken by surprise. How we were divided as a nation regarding our attitude toward terrorism, lacking resolve and neglecting our world-wide responsibility. A commission of inquiry was set up so that we could draw lessons about ourselves in order that we don’t make the same mistakes again. Then, we have those that look for root causes to why so much of the world hates us — the social and economic inequities that underlie the desperation of so much of the third world. And then we have those who see this event as part of an epic struggle against evil, the inevitable clash of cultures, the Crusades returned.
I’d like to take a moment to do a psychological critique of each of these interpretive strategies.
To turn inward and self-reflective has the great advantage of increasing self-awareness and recognizing how we may have contributed to our own misfortune. But it also runs the significant danger of blaming the victim. Amaleq attacked the stragglers, interpreted by the sages as a warning to not be a religious straggler, neglecting the mitzvoth. But, the Holocaust would have happened whether we fulfilled all the mitzvot or not. To say we went to the gas chambers like sheep is more of the same.
To view the trauma of our people as a call to do justice certainly converts the experience of Amaleq by saying that we must never be like Amaleq. We must be kind to the stranger and protect the weak and helpless. Yet, to focus exclusively on that message is to miss the importance of understanding ourselves and our own weaknesses.
Finally, while it is life saving to be prepared to face our enemies and fight them when we must, it is dangerous to demonize the enemy because this can lead to an identification with the aggressor. We will “out Amaleq” Amaleq as Baruch Goldstein did.
Now, these three approaches are not mutually exclusive. Indeed in our celebration of Purim, we combine them. There is the inward looking rededication to torah that we express in the Fast of Esther and on this Shabbat Zackor, there is shelạh manot, and then there is our obligation to drown out the name of Haman with our gragors and our shouts.
And Purim has one other feature that has been over and over again identified with resilience — and that is having fun. It is being able to generate positive emotions even in the context of tragic circumstances that is the hallmark of the resilient person. Humor, laughter, good fellowship dispel the harmful effects of negative emotions. As one humorist noted, “Humor is more important than food. If you don’t have food, you can still make jokes about it, but if you laugh too hard on a full stomach, you’ll throw up.”
Everyone knows that laughter is the best medicine, though, come to think of it, Penicillin is probably the best medicine, or Prozac, or Botox. And people say, “That’s funny” when it’s not, and say “That’s not funny” when it is. And people say, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” which reminds me of some of our Temple board meetings, our Capital Campaign, the Rabbi singing ‘O Canada’ and the length of this devar Torah.
So tonight let’s drown out Haman’s name, do lots of meshigas, and have some fun.