Friday, April 08, 2011

Tzav--Zakhor (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, and on Purim, see the archives to this blog for March 2006 and 2006_02-15_archive.html, and March 2007 (scroll to end), March 2008, March 2009 (end, on Purim), and Feb 20 2010.

Amalek Today

Though Purim is arguably the most light-hearted and even riotous holiday of the Jewish year, it is preceded by two somber days: the Fast of Esther and Shabbat Zakhor, a day devoted to the theme of “remembering Amalek,” when it is a special halakhic requirement to hear the public reading of the passage calling on us to remember his actions (Deut 25:17-19; cf. Exod 17:8-16). Amalek was a nation of marauders who, shortly after the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, attacked the stragglers among them, “those who were trailing at the tail end, and were weak and weary.” Haman, the arch-villain of the Purim story, was of the seed of this same nation. Thus, the entire period from this Shabbat through the festive day of Purim revolves around Amalek: Shabbat is devoted to sober reflection upon him and his deeds, while Purim is the joyous celebration of our delivery from Haman/Amalek’s murderous designs and his ignominious defeat.

But who or what is Amalek, and how are we to understand the relevance of “remembering” him today?

On the simplest, straightforward level, Amalek was a particular nation that has long since ceased to exist; the Sages already observed that “Sennacherib came and mixed all the nations.” But Amalek may also be seen as an archetype or embodiment of all the enemies of the Jewish people throughout history. Sefer ha-Hinukh seems to suggest something like that when he writes: “Among the roots of this mitzvah are that we should take to heart that whoever vexes Israel is hated by God… and that, in proportion with his evil and guile, so shall be his downfall…” (Mitzvah §557).

In these troubled days there is a particular temptation, especially here in Israel, to see the Arabs as the personification of Amalek. Particularly in wake of the events of last Shabbat, when five members of a single family in the settlement of Itamar —father, mother, and three of their six children, including a small infant—were brutally murdered, anti-Arab passion may easily reach a fever pitch. Some rabbis will no doubt assert, as they have in the past, that the Arab peoples as a whole are the embodiment of Amalek, and are deserving of collective punishment for this vicious crime. Purim, in particular, has afforded for some an occasion for expressions of simple hatred of Gentiles, or particular groups that are anti-Semitic or thought of as such. It seems no accident that the 1994 massacre of Arab worshippers in the Cave of Machpelah by Baruch Goldstein took place on Purim; he no imagined himself reenacting the vengeance taken by the Jews of Persia against their enemies. Historian Elliott Horowitz, in his book Reckless Rites, which I reviewed in these pages some years ago (HY VIII: Tetzavah-Purim [=Rashi]), discusses the darker side of this festival at some length.

The application of Amalek to real historical enemies—e.g., the Arabs or Palestinians—is dangerous for several reasons: first, because it can be used to justify gratuitous violence and other unjust acts, justified by sweeping generalizations about a diverse group of people; because it obscures a host of other issues in our conflict with the Arab inhabitants of this land, thereby obviating our seeing the problem in a more nuanced and subtle manner that might enable us to reach ahe modus vivendi with the Palestinian people that Israel so desperately needs; and, finally, and not least, because it distorts and falsifies the intention of the Torah itself.

What, then, might be an alternative reading of Amalek, what about him or them ought we to “remember,” and what ought we to celebrate on the festival of Purim? The Zohar in Parshat Beshalah, II:64b-67a, discusses Amalek at some length, but focuses on the sins of the Jewish people which made them vulnerable to his attack, and less on defining who or what Amalek was. (I thank Avraham Leader for taking time to learn some of this interesting and theologically rich material with me; unfortunately, I found it of little use in answering my specific question.) The impression gained from the Zoharic discussion is that Amalek is a kind of embodiment of negative, even toxic, cosmic forces: the side of “Harsh Judgment,” similar to Satan, the Evil Urge, or the Angel of Death: forces which wage battle against the Almighty. In similar vein, much of the classic aggadah on Amalek focuses on the spiritual nature of the “weakness” of the stragglers whom he attacked (see the passages quoted from Sifrei in Ginsburg’s Yalkut Yehudah ad loc.).

Martin Buber, in his book On Good and Evil, draws a distinction between two kinds of evil. There is evil which stems from confusion, from the person becoming caught up in the maelstrom of multiple possibilities presented by life, failing to choose any direction which will unify and thus give meaning and positive purpose to his life. The lack of focus and direction in life, following one’s variegated impulses in the pursuit of short-term or immediate gratification—all these are doubtless the root of much of the wrong-doing and suffering in this world (cf. Levinas’ concept of “The Temptation of Temptation” in his Nine Talmudic Readings).

But there is another kind of evil: that of the person who has made a conscious choice of the path of evil as against good, who has closed his heart to the other, to basic feelings of human empathy, who is moved by sheer cussedness and bitterness. As several midrashim note, the salient feature of Amalek was that he did not know the meaning of mercy or compassion for his fellow human being, and attacked the weak and helpless, the old and the stragglers.

But more than that: Amalek is human evil pushed to the extreme: unmotivated, gratuitous, murderous hatred. Or, as Buber puts it, in analyzing the ancient Iranian myth of the king Yima, his sin is hubris, the lie against the nature of his being itself: “The primal lie… which ascribes the conquest of the powers of nature to its own superpower. It is no verbal lie confronting a verbal truth; it is an existential lie against being…. He sees himself as self-creator, through himself immortal and immortalizing… he thus commits.. ‘the inner untruth against God and himself” (Good and Evil, p. 110). We hear echoes here of Pharaoh’s “The Nile is mine, and I have made it”; or, even more so, this may be read as an elaboration of the succinct words of the Torah about Amalek: ולא ירא אלהים, “And he did not fear God.”

When I first started this essay, I thought of Amalek as embodying the propensity towards aggression and hostility inherent within human nature, but pushed to an extreme. When this tendency comes to dominate an individual, or more so an entire nation or culture, it can be fatally dangerous. I thought particularly of what the Greeks (and Freud) called Thanatos—the death instinct, the antithesis of Eros, of that which embraces life, which can love others, which seeks to maximize joy and pleasure. At root, it is a fascination with death, even a perverse longing for one’s one death—but it also lies at the root of the desire to cause harm or even death to others. It is particularly prevalent among males and, in our day, with the increasing sophistication and power of weaponry, its destructive power is overwhelming and potentially catastrophic.

But the aggressive instinct, while dangerous, was developed by human beings, or implanted within them by their Creator, as it was within other species, out of necessity, as a means of survival, as a defense against the very real threats encountered in life. The problem is that it can get out of hand, and that, with modern technology, may escalate into horrific acts.

The Amalek principle is something else again: more like what Buber described as a choice of evil as an end in itself, as a life path, scoffing at all decency, at all humane values. I am reluctant to identify it with any specific individual or group, but it is a kind of black hatred of just about everything human and good and decent. And it is real: perhaps a little bit of it is present in every person, and it is certainly alive in the world. One recognizes it when one sees it. (Several people wrote me this week that the murder of small infants, even the slitting of their throats, is not unknown in certain conflicts within the Arab world; that is, what happened to poor little Hadas Fogel was not sui generis, or even confined to Jew-hatred [small comfort that!], but part of a culture of death.) Thus, the mitzvah to remember what Amalek of old did (and Agag, and Haman, and Titus and Torquemada and Chmelnicki, and Hitler; and to this list I would add not only anti-Semites, but enemies against humanity generally) is still of importance. And Purim, while a celebration of a single victory over the Amalek principle, was a victory that was not final, that never is final, but was only one stage in an ever-lasting struggle.

Thoughts About Mishloah Manot

Turning now to Purim itself, and to its practical mitzvot: what ought one to do about mishloah manot? As Purim approaches, many an Orthodox housewife throws up her hands in despair at the religious and social duty of sending out Mishloah Manot—little gifts of cakes and other food stuffs—to friends and neighbors on Purim day. While the halakhah specifies that one is only required to send two manot, two “portions,” to one person, the tendency is “the more the merrier.” And the more socially-connected an individual or family is, the longer the list of “obligations” or people to whom one is expected to send mishloah manot. When my children were small, and we were perhaps more in the focus of a particular synagogue community, my wife would spend days in advance baking—hamantaschen, chocolate-rum balls, little cakes; the morning was spent driving around delivering mishloah manot to a dozen or more people in different neighborhoods; and, when the day ended, our kitchen was filled with baked goods and sweets which usually lasted until Pesah (my wife exercised an iron hand, doling these out to the children only on Shabbat).

In principle, mishloah manot expresses an important religious idea (and one related to our theme for this year): an expression of communal solidarity and love of ones fellow Jew. Thus, by the time each person sits down to his Purim feast in the afternoon, his menu, as that in the homes to whom he has sent his gifts, is composed of portions or courses of food from many different friends and neighbors. But somewhere along the way, it has become for many a baking competition among the housewives, a logistic burden, and a sugar-fest.

Some synagogues, thinking that there must be a better way, have organized a mishloah manot project, in which each member contributes a certain sum to a common pool, which goes mostly to Tzedakah—both “gifts to the poor” on the day of Purim itself, to worthy causes in general, and perhaps also in anticipation of Pesah—and each member of the community receives one symbolic box of mishloah manot. In other places, cards are delivered stating that “the money earmarked for your mishloah manot has been given to such-and-such a charity.” (Both of these ideas are much in keeping with the Rambam’s statement that one ought to spend more money on gifts to the poor than on mishloah manot and on one’s own Purim feast combined: Hilkhot Megillah 2.17).

Without denigrating these efforts, I would like to add another suggestion: that one send gifts consisting of small portions of real food, rather than cakes, sweets, or other nashery: a small salad or cooked vegetarian dish, suitable for a first course or side dish: cooked rice and lentils, ratatouille, vegetarian mock liver, braised peppers, to mention just a few items I have sent to friends in past years. I advocate this for two reasons. First, in my reading of the classical sources, the original idea of mishloah manot was precisely that: to send a “portion” or course of food to one’s neighbors. (Incidentally, it would seem that in ancient times it was customary to send “portions” of food, not only on Purim, but on other holidays as well; see Mishnah Beitzah 1.9.) Need I add that nowhere in the Shulhan Arukh is there the slightest hint that these must be sweet, dessert-type portions, three-cornered or otherwise.

Second: one of the serious problems of Western culture, that has greatly accelerated in recent decades, is obesity and obesity-related diseases; the increase is particularly dramatic among children and teen-agers. One of the major culprits, most experts agree, is a diet top-heavy in “junk foods” and fast food—saturated fats, cholesterol, and carbohydrates filled with empty calories—i.e., refined flour, refined sugar, and trans-fats—precisely the things found in most mishloah manot packages. Rather than associating celebration and the spirit of fellowship with sharing such potential poisons, would it not be better to share sound, nourishing food—such as salads and vegetable dishes—or natural snacks, such as fresh fruits and nuts?

I cannot conclude without expressing our sadness at the natural disasters that have befallen the Japanese people, and our concern and worry at its ongoing nuclear crisis.


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