Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 2nd Adar 5775, 21st February 2015
The command of Parshat Zachor is simple yet problematic. Erase the memory (or the males) of Amalek from the earth. And don’t forget to erase them. Well, if we erase them we don’t have to remember them or to erase them anymore. And if Haman is a descendent of Amalek then our ancestors did not do a very good job of fulfilling the mitzvah. In addition, the command has the same effect as being told, Don’t think about a white elephant. Not much chance of you listening to me now. White elephant here, and there and everywhere.
So let’s probe beneath the surface. Amalek was a problem from the beginning of the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert. They attacked from the rear, they killed off the weak and infirm, and they did not fear God. And so we read in Shmot about the first battle against them, and how Moshe needed help to keep his arms lifted heavenward so that the people would gain the strength to fight from their belief in God. And today’s haftara is devoted to Shaul’s botched effort to annihilate Amalek.
But here’s the problem. A few weeks ago we read, Lo Tirzah – do not murder – and yet here we are being told to murder a whole nation. All of them are bad? If you bear the Amalekite genes, you are a goner? This sounds like a bleeding heart liberal politically correct anachronism but believe it or not, Hazal raised this very question in another form.
Their question was – can an Amalekite convert be accepted and thus spared? The answers range from a categorical no to a definite yes, according to a survey prepared by Rabbi Ari Kahn. The Mechilta states a resounding no. Amalek cannot convert. But the Talmud is more lenient, and some rabbis go so far as to cite Amalekites who not only converted but also became rabbis and leaders – and in fact, one name that was bandied about as a former Amalekite who converted was none other than Rabbi Akiva. Is that true? I don’t know, but that is a tantalizing possibility.
The Rambam in his Mishne Torah also takes a stand: he says unequivocally that an Amalekite can convert. Why? Because, he says, how can we know today (and this was 1000 years ago) who is an Amalekite? 1700 years before him, the Rambam says, all the peoples of the area were uprooted by one conqueror or another and removed to another country. So just because a Jew lived in Babylonia, that didn’t make him a true-blue Babylonian. Same with Amalek.
So basically, what the Rambam is saying, and what makes sense, is that being an Amalekite is not a genetic status but a state of mind. An attitude. An approach to life and to others. That’s why Haman could be linked to Amalek even without the “agagi” part of his heritage, and later Hitler, and today some of our most illustrious and industrious enemies. To beat them you have to think like them.
This opens for us a partial understanding of what is perhaps the most uncomfortable part of Megillat Esther that we read next week (uncomfortable for some people, highly satisfactory to others, I should say): the retribution in which 75,000 people are killed in the countries under the rule of Achashverosh. We can say, these were people who were out to get us, who given the chance would have slit our throats and taken our belongings without a second thought. So they were beyond redemption and received what they deserved.
Or maybe not. Perhaps a more realpolitik approach would be to say that this was simply the Jews’ way of sending the message: don’t mess with the Mordechai. Or as Mel Brooks would have put it in his Spaceballs movie, The Schwartz is with us.
An interesting political interpretation of Megillat Esther by Yoram Hazony (The Dawn) makes this point repeatedly. You can’t be a nice guy, with a delicate moral sense when the people around you have blood and only blood on their minds. That was Haman, who began his actions with psychological warfare against the Jews by telling them that 1) they would be killed; 2) their wives and kids would be killed and 3) their property would be taken from them. Property? Isn’t this an anticlimax, Hazony asks. What’s more important than life?
To which he answers – property. Everyone is going to die at some time. So it will be a little sooner than hoped. The death of one’s children, who should carry on the name and heritage, is a bit more difficult to accept. But then, the property, meaning all the things a person has spent his life building up – to have these markers for posterity stolen away – this is the ultimate insult, the final blow that would make a person despair. Ozymandias again – look on my works, ye mighty and despair.
How does Mordechai fight this when he gains power? First he has to upgrade the Jews’ self-confidence. They don’t believe they have a chance. So he issues an edict, taken almost verbatim from Haman’s, and tells them that on such and such date they will kill and destroy their enemies, their families and take their property (which the Jews didn’t, ultimately).
Then, he works on the princes and leaders of each country, showing them that he is now in power and they should work with him if they want to stay in power.
And then he does what Machiavelli would later advise in his book, The Prince. “Men must either be caressed or annihilated; they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for great ones; the injury therefore that we do to a man must be such that we need not fear his vengeance.” Machiavelli. Mordechai and the Jews knocking off 75,00 Persians. The allies flattening Dresden, and then dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Israel pounding Gaza to a pulp. Choose your example. They all fit. And they should be learned by those who would be more gentle in their attitude and thus more susceptible to revenge.
So, we also see that Purim is an ongoing event, and it’s good to be on the winning side. May our present troubles find a solution as good for us as the one we read in the Megilla, and may our month of Adar, and the months that follow be filled with good cheer and success.
Shabbat Shalom and Purim sameach