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Approaching Purim, Erasing Amalek: Justice and Vengeance

03/05/2023 10:38:21 AM



I had prepared remarks for this past Shabbat, but there was not sufficient time to present them with the completeness and nuance that they required.  I offer a version of what I had hoped to share, updated to include passage of HB30.


Many rabbis are talking this weekend about the same thing- about events in Israel this past week. I will get to that topic, but I want to start by talking about an old story, an old pain that has lingered in a corner of my heart, but now sits perched, uneasily, in the pit of my stomach. That old story, today’s news, and today’s Torah, all teach us about the difference between vengeance and justice, and prepare us to think about the serious side of the Purim story.


It’s a story that starts in the Bible, thousands of years ago, but permit me to start on the 5th of Adar in the Jewish calendar, which fell this past Sunday.  On that date in 1996, also a Sunday morning, two of my friends, Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, boarded a Jerusalem city bus for a school break trip. Matt was from West Hartford Connecticut, and was a fellow rabbinicalstudent. Sara, from New Jersey was a friend from college who was also studying in Israel. They had just gotten engaged. A Palestinian terrorist blew up the city bus they were on, murdering them, along with 24 other Jews.


My friends have been gone for 27 years. On the anniversary of their loss, the 5th of Adar, I almost always attend services and remember them with mourner’s kaddish, and maybe a word of Torah in their memory, and I did that this past Sunday. 


Later that Sunday morning, I got a news alert that two Israeli brothers, Hillel and Yagel Yaniv, ages 21 and 19,  had been shot in their car as they drove through a Palestinian village called Huwara. The Israeli government has built bypass roads around many Palestinian villages so that Jews don’t have to pass through, but there is not one around this town yet. As a result, the road is shared by Jews and Palestinians, and is often jammed, and the attackers took advantage of that to accomplish their attack.


I can’t know the pain and anger of the Yaniv family, but 27 years ago I lived the experience of their friends and their community. I don’t how many of those reading this have experienced the murder of someone in your circle of friends. I hope it is not many. It is something that I experienced then, and, unfortunately, have experienced again since that time. There is sadness and grief, but there is also anger. You want justice - you want the murderer dead.  Maybe that anger stops there, but maybe it doesn’t. Maybe your anger spreads like a stain of blood that will not come out. You might develop a desire for vengeance.  You want the family who raised that murderer, dead. You want the family dog that wagged its tail at them that morning, dead. You see the homes of their neighbors, who watched this person walk past and did nothing to stop them, and you want those homes burned to the ground. 


When my friends were killed, I did not act on my anger in that way. Maybe because it’s not in my nature, but also because the person who committed the attack put himself beyond the reach of human justice, having killed himself in the process. The mastermind behind that attack and others is still sitting in Israeli jail. He just published a book, for which there was a festive book launch party in Gaza.  Matt and Sara’s parents sued the Iranian government, which funded the attack, and while they won an initial victory, its implementation has languished in legal limbo.  


But there were some Jews who chose to let that anger burn, and turned to seek vengeance. They descended on the town of Huwara and nearby villages. They burned homes and cars, injured dozens of residents, and killed one. After the attack, Israeli security forces who were in the vicinity helped evacuate Palestinian wounded and apprehended just a few of the perpetrators. They did not participate in the violence, but they also did not stop it.


Anyone who has been paying attention to the news knows that, at this moment, Israeli society is deeply divided, perhaps as much as it has ever been. I’ve spoken and written previously about the debates going on over the path that the country is going to take. There is a debate about the nature of Israel’s democracy, the roles of parties and judges, about checks and balances against extremism and corruption. It is bringing protesters out into the streets, and investors out of its stock market.


 One of the few things that still unites Israeli society is pain at the death of its own in war or their murder at the hands of terrorists, and the death of these brothers did just that. Just 24 hours later, a young American named Elan Ganeles (ironically also from West Hartford) was driving through the West Bank on his way to a wedding, when he was murdered by terrorists, and thousands attended his funeral.


But in the middle, was that night of fire in Huwara, which struck at the heart and soul of the country. Some cheered it on, but most Israelis, across the political spectrum, were horrified to see Jews responding as they did. It’s hard for us to imagine that there could be a Jewish equivalent to the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, or the guys carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville. 


There have always been a handful of Jewish extremists in Israel. Meir Kahane, their patron saint, was assassinated in the fall of 1990, but his followers have carried on his legacy. They have expressed racist anti-Arab views, or even committed acts of violence against their Palestinian neighbors. What has changed is that they now have a voice within the Israeli government that they have never had before. One representative of this once-fringe stream is Betzalel Smotrich, who is Israel’s finance minister.  He responded positively to comments on Twitter saying that the village of Huwara should have been wiped out. He made a more dramatic statement, “I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it, not, God forbid, individual people.”


To call for the destruction of an entire town because of an attack that took place there might seem to be contrary to what some of us think of as Jewish values, but to be fair, Smotrich has read his Bible. This Shabbat was Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, on which we read Deuteronomy 25:17-19.


“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”


A literal reading of this portion is that it is a Jewish obligation to wipe out that particular nation. And indeed, in the Haftorah that we read on Shabbat Zachor, taken from the book of I Samuel, King Saul is instructed to do exactly that. Samuel tells him to wipe out Amalek, not just its fighting men, but its women, its children, and its livestock. Saul is lax in completing the task, and is punished by losing his right to the throne. The Amalekites survive, and reappear later in the Bible. In particular, the villain of the Purim story, Haman, is understood to have descended from the Amalekite king, Agag, whom Saul spared.


We have faced many enemies throughout our history. The Bible notes that we were afflicted by Egyptians, Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Assyrians and more. In some cases we are commanded to seek truce unless attacked, or even to avoid hatred in our heart.  In others we must offer the opportunity to flee or submit, and in yet others we were told to kill all the men of war.  It is only in this case that annihilation is commanded.


What is so special about Amalek? Sages offer interpretations beyond count. One is that many Biblical enemies attacked out of fear, or out of desire for the wealth that comes with conquest, but Amalek was unique among our Biblical enemies in attacking from behind, when we were fleeing slaves posing no threat, with no spoils of war to offer. Others suggest that there is a constitutional essence to Amalek. Amalek’s forebearer was a grandson of Esau, who would not forgive Jacob’s taking of the birthright, and vowed eternal war against his descendants.  Whereas every other enemy might be placated, Amalek would never relent. Still others see Amalek as a symbolic force representing the essence of evil, reappearing throughout history. 


The sages of the Talmud agreed that the commandment, as originally specified, no longer applied because, even by their day, there were no genealogical remnants of that nation. Nevertheless, there are Jews who read that same passage that we did, and applied it, in a literal or figurative way, to their neighbors down the road.


What do I do, what should we do, with the commandment to “wipe out Amalek?”  The Talmud specifies that there are no longer any carrying a genetic legacy of Amalek. Even if there were, the Talmud (Gittin 57b) notes that, even in its own day, descendants of Haman studied Torah in B’nei Brak, and no-one sought to slay them. The Amalek of today is a way of life, a spiritual legacy. What if it is spread, not by genetics, but by a different kind of contagion?


I recently saw a few episodes of an HBO series called “The Last of Us.” It’s one of two shows on TV where Pedro Pascal protects an orphan with unique powers.  This is the one without Baby Yoda. In this series, based on a video game, there is a fungal infection which causes otherwise innocent people to enter a state of rage and try to bite others. In the series, for the survival of humanity, it is essential to wipe out those who are infected, but it is all too easy to become infected in the process.


Perhaps the spirit of Amalek is, in some way, the same. The original sin, so to speak, of Amalek, was to take their anger about the actions of Jacob, and to continue to seek indiscriminate vengeance on his descendants. That implacable rage- a nation hating Israel simply for who they were, was too dangerous to persist on Earth. Amalek must be struck decisively to avoid becoming its victim, but there is the risk that in doing so, one becomes a carrier of the same toxic philosophy, and moves from the realm of justice to blind vengeance and destruction.


I believe in justice and self-defense, but I cannot condone vengeance. There is no obligation to be submissive in the face of violence or terror. Jewish ethics demand that one seek justice against the individuals who committed an attack. It allows that one may fight back, and perhaps even attack preemptively, to defend oneself. On Purim, the Megillah speaks of the Jews rising up against those who had planned to kill them, and striking them with “sword, slaying and destruction.”  But it also says that their destruction was limited to the combatants, and that they did not put a hand to the spoils. Israeli troops will enter Palestinian areas to capture those who are involved in planning attacks, but it is a point of pride that they do so in ways that minimize loss of life and property to those not directly involved. 


There has been, since the founding of Israel, been  a battle for its body. There are enemies who seek the destruction of the State, and the murder of its citizens. Israel has, for the most part, held its own in that battle, albeit sometimes at terrible cost.  Even as I mourn our losses, I can acknowledge that the measures that Israel must take to protect the safety of its innocent people, no matter how measured,  lead to real harm and disruption on the other side, and, for the sake of all, would like to see the day when things are different. There are those on the other side who celebrate and hand out candy when acts of terror succeed. I cannot stoop to that level.


There is a different battle raging at the moment, a  battle for the soul of Israel. There are those, many, in Israel who live in a realm of justice. They mourn the murdered. They pray for a day of peace, but in the meanwhile, they are resolute. They want to apprehend those who have committed an attack and neutralize those who might seek to. But there are also those who live in the world of vengeance, those who seek to destroy indiscriminately and strike fear. The great irony is that they believe that they are observing the commandment of wiping out the body of Amalek, when in fact they are perpetuating Amalek’s spirit.


Many of us here in the United States struggle with how, or even whether, to comment publicly on this issue. Throughout the world, there are so many who seek to demonize Israel, often as a step to denigration of all Jews everywhere. Do we dare concede even a single point or offer them any ammunition? Here in Georgia, there is legislation pending, called HB30 which was intended to expand the definition of Anti-Semitism to include many types of attacks against Jews, including blaming all Jews for specific wrongs, real or imagined, attributed to some. It has faced fierce opposition, including from Jews with the delusional belief that if they attack Israel with enough fervor, they will be welcomed among those who have no use for Jews in any case. It passed the House just an hour before Purim, and the stated question around Israel.


And this is where I must point out, the people who attacked Huwara, and those who support them, are a minority in Israel. To blame all for the sins of some is, in itself, racism. To condemn Israel as a whole, or indeed all Jews, for the actions of some, is still Anti-Semitism. Someone showed me a meme (distributed by Jews, no less) of the village burning with the title, “This is Zionism.”  This is no less wrong than putting up a picture of a burning cross and saying “This is Christianity” or posting pictures of 9/11 and asserting that that is Islam.  We are always better than the worst among us.  There are Zionists who are deeply wrong. That does not mean that all Zionists, or Zionism as a movement, has failed. Israel is a country like so many others in the world. It is like the United States. It may have racists and hateful people in its midst, and some of them may even, from time to time, attain a degree of public prominence, but that does not make it an inherently racist country. It makes it a country inhabited by human beings.


And so, as I struggle with how to navigate this moment in history, I look back to a much darker one.  In 1939, dusk was falling on one of the darkest times in Jewish history. The British were at the forefront of the attempt to defeat the Nazis, but had also created a “white paper” that demanded that the doors of the land of Israel be closed to Jews seeking refuge from genocide. Jews struggled with how to react. David Ben Gurion, leader of the most prominent Zionist party, wrote “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war.” Perhaps, to paraphrase his words, we must fight antisemites as if there were no Jewish racists, and fight Jewish racists as if there were no antisemites.  


Purim marks a transition in how Jews understand Amalek. The war against Amalek has not ended, but it is fought with different terms of engagement than those understood by Samuel and Saul. The end of the Purim story reminds us that while we must defend ourselves, that is a means, not an ultimate end. Our purpose is to serve God, to preserve and observe our traditions, and bring good into the world. We seek justice, but not vengeance. We cannot lose sight of that, even (and perhaps especially) when we fight evil.


As I remember my friends, and those who share their date of passing 27 years later, I cannot forget that there are those who seek to apply violence against us, indiscriminately.  But as I watch what followed, I realize that there are there are those among us who seek to respond in kind. Our tradition calls upon us to seek justice indiscriminately. We must respond vigorously against those who, in the spirit of Amalek, seek to harm us, and we must not tolerate those who perpetuate the philosophy of Amalek from within our midst.




Sun, March 3 2024 23 Adar I 5784