Purim falls on the evening of Monday, March 13. The preceding Sabbath was “Shabbat Zakhor,” when Jews are enjoined to “Remember what Amalek did to you… after you left Egypt — how… he surprised you on the march… and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore… you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget!”
And the special Haftorah (Prophets) reading for Shabbat Zakhor, from the First Book of Samuel, is about how Saul is commanded to utterly wipe out the Amalekites, including their livestock, and to destroy anything of value. Saul leads his army to commit genocide but he holds back some choice livestock. The Lord tells the Prophet Samuel of his unhappiness with Saul’s measure of disobedience and Samuel shocks a chastened Saul with news that he will lose his kingship as a result.
Here are a few observations emanating from this reading: It is we Jews who are cursed — not in the sense that the Amalekites were, but in being forever burdened with the literal word of our holy texts. This is not the only instance in which the Children of Israel are commanded to engage in what we now call genocide. I recall a history professor who made the point (tendentiously, I think) that the Jews “invented” genocide; actually, we didn’t, but we’re the only ones honest and foolish enough to include our ancient foibles and crimes in our mythic writings (the Bible).
Jewish tradition associates Amalek with the enemies of the Jews in every generation, and it is surely a curse that the Jews have had such enemies in almost every generation. On Purim, the arch-enemy Haman is said to be a descendant of the Amalekites; there is even some midrashic commentary that projects that the Jewish hero Mordechai and his niece Esther are descendants of Saul. And the Megillah reading ends with the Jews having imperial license to slaughter their enemies in Persia. (President Ahmadinejad of Iran, the modern land of Persia — along with Hamas — qualify as today’s Hamans.)
We’ve had too many enemies over the millenia, and more often than not, we’ve suffered terribly from them, but we also desperately need to find a time when we cease remembering Amalek, when we can stop seeing ourselves as victims. The 20th century was among our worst times as victims — mostly because of Hitler, but also Stalin and the Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin Al-Husseini and Arafat (to a much more limited degree), and others I’m sure. But at this time, after Israel has become a major military power and the American Jewish community has found its voice after the relative silence of the Holocaust years, we need to begin to see ourselves as historical players with a measure of power.
To be continued….