Worlds of Torah: Unmasking Purim

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 3/3/2005

Worlds of Torah: Unmasking Purim

Purim approaches (March 24-25).

The Jewish festival of spring fever. Giddy, hilarious, tipsy, masked to hide our ordinary faces and thereby reveal some hidden facet for a flashing moment. Reading a crazy story under the injunction that we must hear every word, and shattering the reading with noisemaking groggers to drown out one of the words we are obligated to hear.

A story where foreboding is forestalled, and all has a happy ending. And God does not appear to wag a monitory finger.

Unless we take off the mask of willed amnesia and remember that on Purim day in 1994, Baruch/Aror Goldstein walked into the mosque at the tomb of Abraham our Father, and gunned down 29 Muslims who were prostrate in prayer, praising the God of Abraham.

Unless we peep through the mask of willed amnesia to realize that he was probably writing a midrash with his gun. That he probably chose Purim because he was responding to the passage late in the Scroll of Esther when the fantasy of armed and principled resistance to a band of murderous Klansmen becomes a fantasy of indiscriminate revenge. 75,000 Persians dead.

At one level, the story that we read on Purim is about a genocidal threat aimed at the Jews, a threat encoded in the archetype of the genocidal tribe of Amalek. The tribe that in the Wilderness, according to Torah, attacked the Israelites from behind, where the sick, the children, the women were straggling behind the line of march.

The Scroll of Esther hooks its little novella to a descendant of Amalek: The fear of genocide is archetypal, immemorial.

To this threat, as we retell the tale each Purim, the Jews respond with diplomatic wisdom and a delicious bitter soup of hot revenge that ultimately spills over.

At another level, the story is a joke: what you intend to do to me, that's what happens to you. The frightened Prime Minister who turns his fear into the murderous intention to hang the Jews? He ends by swinging from the gallows that he built for them. The pompous, empty-headed King refuses to take orders from a woman? He ends by doing exactly what Queen Esther tells him to.

So Goldstein kills his cousins, these children of Abraham, out of his conviction they are out to kill the Jews. Out of his obedience to a very old command: Blot out the name of Amalek.

The Talmud says that on Purim, we are to get just drunk enough to not know the difference between Baruch (Blessed) Mordechai and Aror (Cursed) Haman. For Purim is the day of inversions, inside-outs, of turning the world upside-down. Hilarity and grotesquerie.

This Goldstein had become so drunk on blood that he could no longer tell the difference in his own identity between Baruch, Blessed, and Aror, Cursed. That he could no longer tell the difference between becoming the murderer Haman and becoming the healer Mordechai.

What do we learn, this eleventh Purim since the name of a Jewish Amalek came pouring from every radio, too loud for blotting out by the No no no no no no no that came pouring out from Jews here and there around the planet?

What do we learn from the Palestinian rage spawned by Aror Goldstein? What do we learn from the Israeli fear spawned by that Palestinian rage?

What do we learn from the curfew that Israeli power imposed not upon the settlers of Hebron after their fellow-settler did his massacre, but upon the Palestinians of Hebron lest they vengefully endanger the Israelis settled in their city?

What do we learn from the last four years in which Palestinians renewed their rain of bloody terror on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the North?

What do we learn from these years in which Israel has reoccupied the lands that were to become a Palestinian state, assassinated people it claimed were terrorists, bombed children, women, the sick, the old?

This is what we need to learn: To understand Amalek in a new way. The Torah and the Scroll of Esther are telling the tales of moments when Jews were powerless. In such a moment, the fantasy of wiping out all those who wear the face of enemy may be a purgative.

But Goldstein had a gun, not just a noisy grogger. Behind him stood a powerful army. He could blot out not the word Haman but the lives, the flesh and blood, of those prostrate in prayer. The army could reoccupy, assassinate, bomb.

In some new and deeper understanding of Torah, "blotting out the memory of Amalek" must come to mean something other than murder. The key to a deeper spiritual understanding is seeing that a spark of Amalek may arise not only in outsiders and enemies but also in our own selves.

Within days of the Purim massacre, two women who had been deeply engaged in the struggle to create a feminist Judaism, a psychotherapist and a rabbi, pointed toward new meanings for Amalek.

Barbara Breitman draws on her own experience as a psychotherapist who sometimes deals with adults who had as children been abused. She asked us to look carefully at the key command. — It has two parts, she pointed out: First, "Remember what Amalek did to you." Then, "When your God brings you safely into the land, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek."

First, she said, the victim must clearly and fully recover the memories of victimization and abuse. But then, when we are no longer weak and powerless, when we are "safe in a good land," we must no longer be obsessed with Amalek; for it is exactly an unrealistic and obsessive fear that will drive us to desperate acts — indeed, into acting like Amalek.

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone of Colorado pointed out that Amalek was a descendant of Esau - that grandson of Abraham who was cheated from the birthright and the blessing that would have let him follow in Abraham's footsteps. Amalek, she suggests, is part of our own family — the residue of rage that sprang from the grief and anger Esau felt. Amalek is always a possibility within us, as well as in others. The Torah is teaching that even as we face the danger of a monstrous enemy without, even a whole people that might be captured by the spirit of Amalek, we must also blot out the urge to take on the face of Amalek. We must turn that urge toward compassion.

These are the deepest teachings needed by a people that has lived through a past of victimization into a present day of being powerful: Let the memory of utter helplessness cease to obsess us, for there is nothing so dangerous as feeling still a victim while holding great power. And look within ourselves to see the potential for victimizing others. Amalek is not a stranger; we are all in the same family.

As we taste a moment of respite from the spiral of murder that has possessed both peoples these past four years and more, those lessons are what we need to learn from Purim. Since ritual is the crystallization of the values we intend to live, we need to chant the verses where Jews kill Persians in the same mournful Lamentation trope we use for the verses where Haman threatens to destroy the Jews.

We need to revive the Fast of Esther - the day before Purim, from dawn to sunset. A fast the Rabbis proclaimed to blot out a celebration of national military victory over Hellenism. A fast we could use to clear our minds and purify our hearts. To remind us: We will drink schnapps on Purim to reach a higher level of consciousness in which Bless and Curse are integrated; we do not drink blood so as to blot out the distinction between good and evil.

What does the ritual betoken on the street? How do we turn a deeper spiritual understanding into a more inclusive politics?

We have been powerless for a long time. Indeed, the last time we found a new Torah hidden within the white fire of the Scroll, it was precisely a Torah for becoming powerless, landless, bodiless — and skilled with words. So one of the new elements that demands we search again for new Torah hidden within the old is precisely the reemergence of a Jewish people - in the Land of Israel and in many communities throughout the world - that is able to have a say in the politics of life.

Yitzhak Rabin tried to say it again and again: We are no longer victims and pariahs; we have the power to protect ourselves; we can welcome our cousins as our equals.

In our own generation, the Fast of Esther could become a time for us to meet with the other communities in which there crouches the Amalek Within — and face our nightmares of each other.

Jews could gather with Christians and with Muslims to look at the nightmarish teachings of each of our traditions and to examine how to move beyond them. Then we could sing our different chants for each other, read the Psalms that delight all three traditions, feed each other our distinctive breads and touch each others' foreheads with the oil of anointing.

What does the word Messiah mean? The anointed one. When each of our peoples can anoint the others, we can begin to enter the messianic harvest of our history. All of us.

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