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remember, there is evil

03/14/2022 08:15:56 PM

Mar14

Rabbi Boris Dolin

 

On Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, we read special verses from the book of Deuteronomy at the end of the Torah reading:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt, how undeterred by the fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you should blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

In the traditional Jewish understanding, Amalek is the archetypal anti-Semite, the perpetrator of evil who has become the eternal enemy of the Jewish people.  Amalek is a character who shows far more than hatred, he shows far more than a simple desire to kill.  

In contemporary terms, Amalek is the definition of a terrorist, a man who killed others simply because they were different than him and was threatened by their existence.  He is a character, who in various forms we have been forced to encounter again and again throughout our history.  And of course, the obvious connection with the news of the past few weeks is also clear.  Now we have our own Amalek in our midst, who even if he has not yet come for us, has taken over our minds and our sense of hope in our future.

Of course on Purim which we will be celebrating in just a few days, we commonly understand Haman, the evil mastermind in the story to be a direct descendant of Amalek.  He is another terrorist who thankfully is stopped by our celebrated heroes Esther and Mordechai. 

With Haman, we turn the name of this terrorist into a bit of a joke, and whenever his name is called, we boo, hiss and spin our groggers.  As we read the Purim story, yet another tale of our success over our enemies, there is usually no deep reflection on the nature of his evil, and no discussion of the reason for his actions.  Yet living in a world where we have people like Vladimir Putin who is doing his best to live up to the qualities of a modern-day Amalek, it makes sense to take some time to examine the nature of this cruelty.

The Purim story is actually a story of the deepest kind of racism and anti-Semitism.  It is a story of violence and evil, of attempted mass murder, and also of deep sexism and misogyny.  This is a story that we have somehow turned into a kid’s holiday of costumes, cookies and general fun.  We dutifully follow the commandment to “blot out Haman’s name” with smiles on our faces and Hamantashen in our hands, believing that we can celebrate because we are alive and have survived.

Let’s take a moment to look at what is happening in Ukraine.  Here we have a true evil dictator, a man whose goal is to destroy an entire country to make it his own.  As has been reported, Putin’s way of fighting a war involves indiscriminate killing, endless propaganda and lies, and a deep manipulation of the entire sense of reality to get his people to be on his side.  Like a true man of evil, he will kill anyone in his path as long as he can achieve his goal.  As I mentioned in my conversion class a few days ago when discussing the nature of the complicated idea of heaven and hell in Judaism, Judaism doesn't necessarily have the traditional concept of hell where people rot in eternity with the red devil watching over their suffering.  Yet even we compassionate, liberal and open-minded Jews can open up the burning gates of hell for a few deserving souls when necessary.

While Putin’s actions are of course difficult to understand, we also do need to take a moment to reflect on the world that could create such a man.  The inner workings of evil, the systems, political, social and otherwise in our society which lead to divisions, persecution and violence are very real, and start within.

We can and should blame the evil, the people and the ideas in our world that cause so much suffering.  But as we are often asked to do by our tradition, we can also look at ourselves.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the German rabbi who is credited with helping create the Modern Orthodox movement, saw a very real danger of how we see Amalek in our tradition.  For him, Amalek may be our enemy, but when we internalize him too much, and believe it is just about us vs. them, we have to be careful:

Do not forget this thing: If the day comes and you want to be similar to Amalek and their likes, and you will not know the obligation, and you will know not God, but you will just look for opportunities in small and big matters, to exploit your superiority only to harm mankind, “don’t forget” the moral mission of Israel... Remember the land soaked with tears that cause the laurel to grow for these wreaths. Do not forget this thing, for when the day comes when you yourself will suffer from the aggression and vulgarity of Amalek... Preserve your humanity and the values of integrity that you learned from God... and in the end humanity and justice will win over vulgarity and violence. (Commentary on Deuteronomy 25:19)

Especially today, we encounter evil all too much in our world.  We see it in Ukraine, and in acts of terrorism and violence.  We find it in the suffering caused by deep and systemic racism and bigotry.  We find it in political fights, and in community brokenness.  It is not just in the news we read in the papers, and in some ways it is all too close to home.  As Hirsch reminds us, the idea of Amalek is not just about the act of separating people into us and them, or creating an idea of an enemy who we will be eternally fighting with, but it is at its source an inner fight with the Amalek inside of us.  At home, in Russia, in Israel, or whenever we encounter acts of hatred and violence in others, we need to also know that the power of Amalek is also within all of us.

None of us want to keep waking up to the horrible news we have encountered the past few weeks, and it is easy and right to put the blame on one man, Putin, our Amalek of the moment.   Yet, on this Shabbat Zachor, we have to remember to do all that we can to wipe out such evil from our midst, and at the same time look within, and give back to the world compassion and love.

I am reminded of the words of Simon Wiesenthal, who spent his life finding and bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.  He saw the deepest of evil, and lived through the worst of horrors, yet he said again and again the reason for his life's work was “I seek justice not revenge.”

May the news making its way out of Ukraine only inspire us to move forward with more compassion, and move us towards a more clear fight for justice and peace.  There will always be Amaleks, but to fight against them is a very real external and internal struggle.  And if we know anything, we know that this path is not easy.  But let the fight begin.

 

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782