This weekend is Purim. Those who show up to services in synagogues around the world will hopefully rejoice in the fun and frolic of this holiday. Let’s not forget that there is a serious side in preparing for Purim. I am not referring today to the customs of shlach manot or preparation of food gift packages to friends and to the poor. I am not referring to the optional fast day which tradition calls the fast of Esther. Instead, this Shabbat we will read the Torah portion- parashat tzav- which comes from the book of Leviticus. At the end of the Torah reading, when we come to the last set of verses, we will bring out a second Torah in addition to the one we read and open it to Exodus and read several verses reminding us to remember the evil Amalek. This was the biblical figure who attacked the Israelites from behind in their journey into the desert. This was the most vulnerable part of the Israelite encampment because the women and the children were at the back of the formation. The Torah tells us to “blot out” Amalek’s name and then it also tells us “not to forget” him. Because it is a mitzvah to read these verses at the end of our Torah reading, the rabbis fixed this Sabbath and called it Shabbat Zachor-the Sabbath of Remembrance.
Why do we pay attention to this little known ancient barbarian or tribal chieftain who terrorized the Israelites? Is it because of the connection to Haman, the evil one who almost succeeded implementing a policy of ethnic cleansing of the Jews in Persia, thereby setting up the story of Purim which we shall read Saturday night at Temple? The answer to this question is in part yes. But I must believe that there is more to it than simply remembering the evil man in either story. Someone said to me recently, does not this kind of rabbinic mandate to blot out his name ultimately perpetuate hatred in people? How can Judaism advocate us to hate anyone?
There is a possible outward appearance that by remembering our bitter feelings to Amalek or Haman or any of these nefarious leaders over history that we indulge the emotion of hatred. But the rabbis taught us to remember them not to hate them. Remembering does not mean hating them forever but it does mean rejecting their actions. It means learning from what they did to our ancestors and being careful today because good and evil are shaped by history and experience.
I know critics within Judaism say that we are obsessed with those who are trying to annihilate us. Maybe we should take a broader perspective and resist being so dependant emotionally upon a siege mentality towards our own history. Yet, I wonder if that change of heart does not create a slippery slope for us when we start to soften the impact of the demagogues and tyrants of the past, the successors to Amalek?
It is certainly a balancing act for Jews in observing Purim to intermingle our celebration of Jewish heroism and remembrance of how close we came to extinction. Maybe that is why humor is the only safety valve that the rabbis had at their disposal that would enable Jewish communities to cope with the ongoing potential threat of a Haman in any period of Jewish history. That is why we use the groggers on Purim and cheer for Mordechai and Ester and put on plays to make fun of ourselves. It is all about balance in our spiritual health. Humor itself is an effective tool or emotion that we have to offset the pressures and the anxieties of life.
We would be wise not to focus so much on the man Amalek or even Haman or any other despotic ruler against the Jews in history that such emotional energy saps our love of humanity and our trust of the good people who have been our friends. We have many of them. Let us learn from all our experiences to beware the potential threat and to still celebrate and make holy our lives. Enjoy Purim and Chag Sameach.