Parshat Zachor & Purim-5770
Rabbi David Walk
There's a fascinating argument in the Mishneh about how much of the book of Esther must be read to fulfill one's obligation to hear the Megillah on Purim. One opinion which is the one that we follow, is to read it all. Next, another rabbi suggests that we must start from the introduction of Mordechai, who provides the salvation. Because we have to know that the tools for victory are ever around us. However, most interesting to me is the third position, that we only to start with chapter three when Haman, the villain, enters. In other words what we really have to understand, to get the point of Purim, is the nature of evil. This a good year to analyze this concept because Purim is connected to Shabbat Zachor when we perform our annual remembrance of the duty to destroy Amalek, Haman's nation. Before we go on, allow me to remind you, o gentle reader, that Amalek as a distinct nation no longer exists. It is the concept of Amalek and its unique evil which must be destroyed.
Amalek is the eternal nemesis of Israel, our Lex Luther (as played by Gene Hackman, not Kevin Spacey). The importance of this nation is measured by its distance from everything we stand for. In Bilaam's blessings for the Jewish nation (Numbers 24:20) , he remarks that Amalek is the first of all nations and will be destroyed. This prophecy describes two aspects of Amalek's unique character, but leaves us with two obvious questions. In what way is Amalek first among nations? Definitely not chronologically. And, what is special about being destroyed? It seems that many ethnic groups have disappeared throughout history.
To the first question there is a famous and, almost, obvious answer. the great medieval commentary Rashi points out in Deuteronomy (25:17) on the verse demanding that we remember Amalek, what first means. It implies that Amalek was the first to attack the Jewish nation after the exodus, when every other nation in the world trembled before us. Amalek, on the other hand, cowardly attacked us from behind. This ambush made the world aware that fighting Jews is not necessarily a death sentence. The basis for Rashi's fine interpretation is the word korcha, in the verse. Even though this term seems to really mean happened upon us (There are commentaries who belief that this was Amalek's flaw: They believed there was no Divine Plan for the universe.), Rashi goes for the Hebrew root kar, meaning cold. So, the verse translates as they cooled you guys off. When you left Egypt, you were really hot.
It's on this same word that Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) makes a brilliant observation in his book, Pachad Yitzchak on Purim. Rav Hutner explains that the coldness was intellectual. This frigid reference is to cynicism, or lack of passion for truth and good. The true cynic sees no value in one idea over another. There is no difference between any belief systems, so, why have devotion to any? The derisive scoffing of such an individual is corrosive and destructive of any warmth and righteousness. Just as the Jewish nation was first in recognition, love and worship of the One True God, Amalek is first in mocking that sincerity. This is a truly destructive trait. When everything is open to ridicule then there is no integrity. And there is little that can be done against this trait, because this weapon is also a powerful shield. All serious attempts to combat this spiritual cancer are also mocked and derided. This is why in the first Psalm, King David praises the one who doesn't sit amongst the scoffers, and his son, King Solomon declared: Do not attempt to admonish a cynic (Proverbs 9:8). We have a Torah obligation to chastise someone who is contravening the Torah (Leviticus 19:17), but don't bother if the perpetrator is a cynic. He just won't listen (Yevamot 65b).
Now we can look at the second part of Bilaam's prophecy that Amalek will be destroyed. This is, I believe, a reference to the 14th chapter of the book of Zecharia. The prophet describes this future scenario in which many people will be killed, but the survivors will recognize the unity of God (this is the last line of the Aleinu prayer). What differentiates between the survivors and the victims? Only those who can be convinced of the greatness of God will make it through this catastrophe. Well, that lets out Amalek. They can't be convinced of anything. It's outside the experience of the true cynic to be convinced or to become attached to any spiritual idea. The cynic is always looking for the point to attack and ridicule. I'd like to believe that it will be the cynicism which will be obliterated and not the cynics, but who knows?
This brings us back to Purim. The lesson of Purim is one of belief and faith. It's the anti-skepticism holiday. This is, of course, the book which doesn't mention God; there were no obvious miracles in Persia back then. However, we believe with perfect faith that God controlled those events 2600 years ago, and continues to take a hand in Jewish destiny. We thank God for the victory and the continuation of our people. It's this faith that sustains us.
And how do we destroy Amalek and Haman? With simple faith and piety. We have to remember who the enemy is. It's that unhealthy kind of skepticism which prevents us from any sincere passion for things spiritual. If we can't put our finger on anything that we truly believe, if we never feel the presence of something higher and greater, if everything we do seems meaningless, then Amalek wins. Our commitment this Parshat Zachor and Purim must be to destroy Haman and Amalek again, one sincere, warm deed at a time. Happy Purim!!
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