The Evil We Should Remember on Purim

I’m not especially religious, but I belong to a synagogue, and a virtual religious Jewish community during the pandemic.  Much of this post is drawn from my Dvar Torah (sermon) last Saturday.  

The Sabbath before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor; zachor (also transliterated as “zakhor”) means “you shall remember.”  What we are to remember is to “blot out the memory of Amalek עֲמָלֵ֔ק from under heaven. Do not forget!”  The connection between Purim and Amalek is that Haman, the Persian king’s Jew-hating adviser, is regarded as an incarnation of evil, and the Talmud draws a direct line from Amalek to Haman.  

The Amalekites are remembered for their treachery and cruelty in attacking defenseless stragglers when they wandered in the desert.  Via the Prophet Samuel, God commands the Israelite king Saul to “attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!”

Knowledgeable Jews know from reading the Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) on Purim, that the story ends with the Jews having official imperial license to attack and kill their enemies.  According to the text, this is justified because the Persian King Ahasuerus could not revoke his earlier decree to massacre the Jews, prompted by Haman; the only way Ahasuerus could forestall this is to issue a new edict, “[permitting] the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions. . . .” 

On the appointed day, designated for the Jews’ destruction, the opposite happens, with 500 non-Jewish men slain in the capital city of Shushan. “The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes; but they did not lay hands on the spoil.”  

If this massive bloodshed bothers us, we should take solace from the fact that The Book of Esther is not a historical document.  (None of the scriptures are objective histories, but the Purim story is more clearly fictional than the stories of the kings and prophets.)   There is no evidence that anything like what’s written in the Megillah ever happened.  But we should know what did happen on Purim in February 1994, when Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron. 

This was the first event of mass violence during the Oslo peace process, which was undermined by waves of terror attacks launched mostly from the Palestinian side.  It is believed that Goldstein’s crime motivated the Hamas arch-terrorist Yahya Ayyash, known as “the Engineer,” to design the suicide explosives that murdered 90 Israelis (mostly civilians). 

It turned out to be imprudent for Shimon Peres (the interim prime minister following Rabin’s death) to authorize the Shin Bet hit on Ayyash in January 1996, during a time of quiet.  This led to the wave of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror attacks which murdered 59 Israelis on two Jerusalem buses and children & mothers in Purim costume on a Tel Aviv street; this propelled a right-wing politician named Benjamin Netanyahu to overcome a 20 point deficit in the polls to squeak to victory over Peres in May 1996.  Hence Goldstein’s murder spree on Purim, 1994, stands on a par with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in derailing the peace process of the 1990s.  Naturally, historical trends are always more complicated than a single event, but this single event was probably more consequential than any other in recent Israeli history.  

In my inbox last week, I found a Dvar Torah from Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, a board member of the Israeli organization, Rabbis for Human Rights, which includes some potent questions, and a possible answer:

— How can the Bible hold the descendants of Amalek responsible for their ancestors’ deeds?

–- How can genocide ever be justified?

– And the cattle: what crime are they guilty of?

. . .  how can we celebrate in synagogue the execution of Aggag, Haman and his ten sons? Can’t a less bloodthirsty and more hopeful special reading be found that promotes a morality that befits the values we hold dear? 

[Rabbi Milgrom continues] . . . For 28 years now, the Israeli human rights community and its supporters everywhere cringe when we hear פורים שמח! – “Happy Purim!” – after a resident of Kiryat Arba massacred 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron after he read the book of Esther on Purim in 1994. 

Rabbi Milgrom was helped by the suggestion from a friend and colleague that Jews overcome their alienation from dark texts by locating and meditating on a single passage, verse, or even a word that speaks to them.  In this instance, Milgrom suggests the story of the midwives at the end of Exodus, chapter 1, who disobeyed Pharaoh and safeguarded the newborn Israelite males.  This is especially apt because a recurring theme in the Purim story (and of Passover, coming next month) is of defying evil orders, and the command to wipe out Amalek is certainly an evil order.

I conclude with the rabbi’s conclusion:

Throughout human history, obedience to immoral orders has enabled patently illegal invasions and occupations. May it be God’s will that we once again greet each other with “Happy Purim” — when we release ourselves from blind obedience to immoral orders, and choose instead to seek the God who lives through all of creation.