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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Unmasking Purim, Fighting Amalek: Behind the whimsy of this holiday lie some deep lessons for living.

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Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Mar Vista, CA

Many people are preparing their Purim carnivals, skits and spiels. I wish they would stop, just for a moment. All that energy devoted to the kids and to having fun is good, but there is more to consider. The frivolity of Purim masks an evil — and a richness of tradition on how to fight that evil, an effort from which we can be easily distracted.

First, a little about the holiday. Its name comes from the Persian word “pur” (plural, “purim”), which means something like “dice.” Haman tossed the dice to determine the date to annihilate the Jews. We are also told that the Hebrew translation of pur is “goral,” which can mean “chance” or “fate.”  (From one perspective, life feels like chance. From another, it feels like fate.) So instead of calling the holiday Purim, try calling it “Dice”— or, even better, “Chance.”

The story of Chance is told through the rich fabric of the book of Esther. The observance is simple: read the entire Scroll of Esther (the whole megillah) on the 14th day of Adar (the 15th of Adar in some ancient cities). In addition, Esther 9:22 tells us that Purim is to be a time of feasting and gladness, of sending dishes of food to friends and gifts to the poor.

A single line in the Talmud, Megillah 7b, inspires much wobbly to incoherent merriment. “Rova said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated (livsumi) to the point that one does not know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordecai.’” (Many people who fulfill few other commandments are punctilious in the observance of Rova’s opinion.) The “gladness” tradition is probably the source of the costumes, carnivals, skits and spiels.

In traditional synagogues on the Sabbath before Purim, we read these verses from The Torah: “Remember (zachor) what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how they came upon on the road and cut off all the weak people at your rear, when you were parched and weary, not revering God” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).

We learn from this tradition that in addition to the other Purim customs we are supposed to “remember Amalek.”

“Remembering,” or perhaps better, “being mindful of” is an inner-life commandment. It is hard to measure whether you have fulfilled it. Perhaps one just has to read the few biblical verses that describe who Amalek is and what Amalek did.

The inner-life traditions (Kabbalah, Mussar, Chasidism) require much more. These traditions — more focused on transformation than just outer observance — require studying and internalizing the meaning of Amalek as a path for spiritual and moral growth. Our inner-life traditions see the biblical Amalek as reflecting a psychological archetype. In essence, what Amalek did then, Amalek is always doing now inside of every human being.

In case you don’t remember Amalek so well, here’s some help: Genesis 36:11 tells us that the progenitor of the tribe of Amalek was the grandson of Esau, the fraternal twin of Jacob/Israel. Esau was the father of Eliphaz. Eliphaz had both proper wives and a concubine named Timna with whom Eliphaz bore Amalek. Amalek, then, is the grandson of dispossessed Esau, dispossessed again by being the son of a concubine. We can only theorize as to what caused Amalek’s hatred toward the Israelites.

Perhaps in an unhappy, forlorn state, Amalek sees himself as a victim of Jacob/Israel stealing the birthright from his grandfather Esau. Instead of moving on, Amalek chooses to fixate, stew and hate. The children of Israel become the focus of his envious hatred. What they have is rightfully his, Amalek believes. This hatred is passed down in tribal consciousness, maybe even as a core self-understanding: “We are those who hate the people Israel.”

Amalek dwells out in the world, in full view. Within us, he hides in our political outrage, as well as in the interpersonal harm that we inflict on each other.

In Exodus 17:8-18, Amalek attacks the Israelites as they come out of Egypt. After a back-and-forth battle, the Israelites fight off Amalekites. After the battle, God says to Moses that God will surely erase the memory of Amalek, and God is engaged in an eternal war with Amalek.

These and other Biblical incidents create the image of an intractable enemy, always present when Israel is weak. In the aggadah (rabbinic narratives rooted in the Bible), the image of Amalek is filled out, for example, as mutilating the bodies of Israelites captured through vile cunning.

Amalek is finally cornered in 1 Samuel. In this narrative, God commands King Saul to annihilate the Amalekites, those committed to the annihilation of Israel. Saul does so, but lets Agag, their king, live. Samuel the Seer tells Saul that God has ripped the kingship away from him for disobeying God. Samuel has Agag brought before him and slays him — but, according to the aggadah, it’s too late. In the interim, Agag has sired a child, who begets a generation. In Esther 3:1, we learn that the Amalekites have migrated to Persia (today’s Iran). Haman is the son of Hamdata, the Agagite. Haman is an Amalekite.

Haman is foiled in the time of Esther, but as a symbol, lives on. In the Zohar, Kabalah’s foundational book, Amalek descends from the primordial snake. He is the stuff of spiritual impurity and poison.

As a spiritual psychological archetype, Amalek roams the world. He appears in Stalin, Hitler’s National Socialism, Mao’s and North Korea’s Communism, in the extremist theology of Islamic terror and in ethnic “cleansings” and depredations all over the world.

There is an Amalek in the mass shooters, in racial hatred, in the sundry evils that plague our nation and world. Amalek is known as being impervious to reason — his thinking flows directly from his hatred. He does not hate for what people do, but for what they are. And not even really that. Amalek is addicted to hatred. Whom he hates is secondary.

To remember Amalek is to know that there truly is evil in the world, not just the absence of good. Amalek destroys the good.

For many people, the study of Amalek stops here. We ask ourselves who is Amalek today, and many people have ready answers. Bush is Hitler, or Obama is Hitler or Trump is Hitler. The left are Nazis. Everybody we hate is Hitler or Nazi. That is your inner Amalek talking inside your political passions. Amalek loves to hate and dehumanize those whom we hate.

Once we remember that Amalek dwells within our political passions, we take one more look at where else Amalek lives. This last area of spiritual psychology is core to my own teaching.

First, Amalek dwells in families. I have heard spouses speak to each other with finely articulated hatred. I ask the offender: What’s the source of this license to insult? Their inner Amalek chirps up: “I’m just saying what I feel. I am supposed to be truthful about my feelings.”

I sometimes counsel, “There is a higher truth here. The truth of clarity, not of insult. The truth of wisdom, not invective. The truth of making things better, not destroying that which is gasping to survive.”

Amalek hides mostly in our anger. Amalek loves it when you find something to get angry about. Many of us carry within us resentments, wounds, senses of unfulfilled entitlement that infect our thinking and color our emotions. We can’t imagine letting go of some perceived (or real) injustice, because some part of our lives has learned to thrive, to take meaning in that sense of having been wronged.

For us, as for Amalek, resentment and anger can be the organizing principles of our lives. True, Judaism teaches us, rightly, to fight evil. But most of what we are angry about is not evil. Most of us are angry about the messiness of life lived with other people with whom we disagree. Perhaps far more imperfect than we are, but imperfect just like we are. Amalek hides in our outrage, in our rationalizations, which allow us to see mere momentary opponents as embodiments of evil.

Finally, the inner Amalek hides in not only the parts of the self that attack others, but those that attack our own well-being.

Unresolved grief, despair, irrational guilt and obligation, inner shame, irrational fear and anxiety, envy and destructive desire are fueled by poisonous permissions, excuses and rationalizations of Amalek.

Sometimes we who care for the souls of others feel like emergency room staff. People wheel themselves in, emotionally and spiritually broken, hemorrhaging the belief that things can get better.

Let me share one ER moment, one of thousands.

I once counseled a woman who was trying hard to to get to her writing projects. Her marriage was tough and she felt spiritually spent and dissipated. She had gone to therapy and discovered the painful legacy left by her parents. Armed as she was with insight, she still was wallowing in the mire.

I asked, “What is the she saying?”

“She, who?” the woman asked.

“She, that unhappy voice within,” I responded. “She has something to say and she is saying it, but her voice is close to inaudible.”

I taught this young woman a bit about different ego states, subpersonalities and discordant voices. She caught on.

“She says that I am a loser, that my talent was spent a long ago, that like my father I won’t amount to much, that I dream big but accomplish little.”

“How does she feel about you?” I asked.

“She hates me. She wants me to be the worse wife and mother possible. She wants me depressed and unavailable.”  She heard herself talking and then asked, disconcerted, “Who is she?”

“She is the Amalek within,” I said.

Even those of us who have gotten somewhere in life know that we harbor within us voices and forces that if expressed or lived out could shatter it all. So many people wake up in the gutter with a final cry that they want to live that they have formed communities (such as 12-step programs) of those cut down by Amalek. Some of us, Amalek stabs in the back.  Others die by a thousand slashes.

However old I am, I am not taking that pattern of thought, speech or behavior out of Egypt with me. There is a strict baggage limit on the freedom train.

In sum: Amalek dwells out in the world, in full view. Within us, he hides in our political outrage and the interpersonal harm we inflict on each other. Deeper within, Amalek gnaws away at our own well-being.

Here is a way to fight Amalek. First, in the weeks before Passover, create a detailed vision of the person you want to be in every area of your life, including how you spend your time and manage your private thoughts, feelings and emotions. The vision should be realistic and achievable, not just high-sounding phrases.

Next, try to detect the voices of Amalek as he aims to block your path or distract you from your goal. Amalek always has a speech, some excuse or rationalization in the costume of reason. This is where virtue comes in. Your path includes rules of speech and behavior.

It is a fight. Some days the battle goes my way, and other days Amalek gets the upper hand. I keep up the fight. This fight reaches its most bitter moment right around Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim.

Take a break for Purim — the feast of gladness and joy. Realize that you don’t have to drink to get intoxicated because Amalek is toxic enough.

Start to refine the battle to one close-quarters fight that I believe I have the vision, the will and skill to win. Stop using that word. Stop that passive aggressive behavior. Be straight and aim for the good.

As Nisan, the month of the Exodus, comes closer, realize that the time is now. However old I am, I am not taking that pattern of thought, speech or behavior out of Egypt with me. There is a strict baggage limit on the freedom train.

By the middle of Nisan, I have flushed out at least one face of Amalek and I realize now that he is not I — that he is Pharaoh bent on enslaving me. Things are clearer now. What I thought was part of me was actually a chain. I get out of Egypt, ready for the word of God to fill me.


Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California.

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