Remembering Amalek

A serious lesson that focuses on fighting evil precedes the Purim fesitivites.

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Remembrance is the key to preventing recurrence. Goaded by the memory of the failures of the 1930s, the indifference toward Jewish refugees, the American government in 1979 organized a worldwide absorption program for two million boat people. Goaded by memory, America's Jews and Israel responded to the crisis of Soviet Jewry and, belatedly, of Ethiopian Jewry.

Naivete and amnesia always favor the aggressors, the Amalekites in particular. The Amalekites wanted to wipe out an entire people, memory and all; amnesia completes that undone job. Ingenuousness leads to lowering the guard, which encourages attempts at repetition. One of the classic evasions undergirding naivete is the claim that Amalek is long since gone. Only "primitive" people are so cruel, only madmen or people controlled by a Svengali/Hitler type would do such terrible things. The mitzvah of Zachor is a stern reminder that Amalek lives and must be fought.

Through Zachor, one learns to distinguish types and levels of evil. Not every evil is Amalek, but the ultimate evil must be destroyed. King Saul had a chance to wipe out Amalek, but in pity he spared Agag, the king. Centuries later, Haman the Agagite, the descendant of Agag, plotted the mass extermination of Jews (Esther 3:1). Says the Talmud, "Whoever is compassionate to those who deserve cruelty ends up being cruel to those who deserve compassion" (Midrash Tanhuma Metzora, Jerusalem Eshkol, 1971), section 1).

The Fast of Esther

Having recalled the forces of evil, the Jew now proceeds to recall the bitter memory of the helplessness and the terror of innocents suddenly condemned to death without rhyme or reason. This mood is actually part of the story of the Megillah [Scroll of Esther], but it would be almost impossible to capture in the midst of Purim exultation. Therefore, the day before Purim was established in the rabbinic period as a fast day, the fast of Esther.

Again, the Rabbis show the strong halakhic [Jewish legal] preference for dialectical experiences that reinforce one another. Here, fasting is just as important to holiness as feasting. The fast day of Esther corrects the excesses in Purim. To the sense of triumph and mastery over fate celebrated on Purim, the fast of Esther responds with a reminder of the powerlessness that preceded the day. Before the merrymaking and dulling of one's senses through drunkenness begin, the fast day offers the introspection and meditations of penitential prayers and Avinu Malkeinu (our Father, our King, we have sinned before You). As against the sense of triumph over enemies celebrated by booing Haman (it could easily turn into arrogance), the fast of Esther holds up the teaching of vulnerability.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).