Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What happened to Haman's descendants?

On the surface, Purim seems like the most lighthearted Jewish holiday, with joking, masquerading, feasting, and delivering treats to friends and family.  But under that surface boils the powerful rage of thousands of years.  When we yell and stamp and make noise during the reading of the Megillah, we express our rage not only at Haman, the villain of the Purim story, but also at those in every generation whose irrational hatred of Jews has led them to violence.  But let us exhibit this rage with caution.

The rage of Purim finds dramatic expression in the special Torah reading for the Shabbat before Purim, known as Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. We read (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)  that as the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they were attacked by the tribe of Amalek. The Amalekites chose to fight their battle not against the armed Israelite soldiers, but against innocent, defenseless civilians, the “stragglers in the rear.” The Torah commands us to obliterate the people of Amalek, and "blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens." This attitude may seem violent and vindictive, especially in comparison with other Jewish texts that encourage empathy and sensitivity for all human life, even the lives of enemies.  (See, for example:  Genesis 18:23ff, where Abraham argues on behalf of the city of Sodom; Deuteronomy 23:8, which prohibits hating the Egyptians despite their conduct towards the Israelites; and B.T. Megillah 10b, in which the angels celebrate the splitting of the Red Sea, and God silences them because of the loss of life of the Egyptians.)  However, this attitude is not surprising when considered against the backdrop of Jewish history.  A people that has experienced so much pain may require an occasional opportunity to express its rage.   

Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is described in the Bible as a descendant of the Amalekite king; our tradition links his Amalekite lineage to his wicked desire to destroy our people.  But a major problem of Biblical interpretation is embedded in the Torah’s command to wipe out the nation of Amalek, as the word “Amalek” simultaneously has two meanings.  Amalek is a general symbol for cowardly evil, but Amalek is also the name of the specific Middle Eastern tribe that attacked the Israelites in the desert. Which one are we commanded to destroy? Is the commandment specific to the tribe of Amalek, or is it a general commandment to fight evil actions in every generation? Is the Torah implying that there is a particular nation that has a genetic predisposition to violence and evil?

Our tradition recognized the dangerous and terrifying potential of a literal interpretation of the Amalek commandment. Much traditional Jewish literature sees the commandment against Amalek not as a commandment to destroy an evil nation, but as a commandment to destroy evil.  For example, Reb Simha Bunim of Pzhisha, a Hasidic rabbi of the early 19th century, noted that the commandment to destroy Amalek is phrased in the singular, rather than in the plural. It is not a commandment to one nation to destroy another nation, but rather a commandment to each individual to search and destroy the Amalekite tendencies within ourselves.

One remarkable short passage in the Talmud protests against the idea that the Amalekite people are irredeemable. We read: mibnei banav shel haman lamdu torah bivnei brak: Descendants of Haman were students and teachers of Torah in the academies of Bnei Brak in the land of Israel.  (BT Sanhedrin 96b) The Jewish people is better off for the existence of these descendants of the Amalekites, because they were among the builders of our rabbinic tradition. And if righteous people, students and teachers, can be descended from the Amalekites, then no nation can be irredeemably evil.

I learned this lesson when I participated in an inter-religious commemoration of the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the horrible Night of Broken Glass that heralded the beginning of the Holocaust, together with a group of German and Austrian Christian seminary students.  A priesthood candidate told us that his father and grandfather were both perpetrators of Kristallnacht as members of the German SS, but that he had chosen to enter the clergy to try to eliminate hatred and racism from his community. He said that his ancestry gave him a special motivation for learning about Judaism and making contact with the Jewish community. Studying and talking with him was like being in the presence of Haman's descendants who became students and teachers of Torah.

Too many of the spiritual descendants of Amalek are alive and well and active. But let us not forget that, in our tradition, the potential for righteousness exists in every nation and in every community. We look forward to the day when we are able to study in partnership with the genealogical descendants of today's Amalekites, when our differences become not sources of hatred, but sources of insight and growth.