A Meaning of Purim

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 14 March 2022

V’timcheh et Zecher Amalek mitachat HaShamayim, lo tishkach.

Blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens – do not forget.

At the heart of the idea of Shabbat Zachor and Purim are a number of contradictions. At once we are told to remember and to forget. To remember the evil of the Amalekites in attacking the Israelites at their weakest point, and to blot out the name of Amalek, so that it is lost to history. This is taken literally as a Mitzvah by Torah scribes, who use the word Amalek as a way of testing their quills – by writing Amalek and then crossing it out, literally blotting out the name. Thus, Amalek becomes a name that it is imperative to forget, and yet becomes all the more memorable.

The connection with the story of Purim, is that the villain of the Purim story, Haman, is said to be a descendent of Amalek – the Israelites having failed thus far to eradicate and blot out Amalek from the world. Thus, Purim is a moment in which the pure evil of Amalek resurfaces to challenge us. And onwards goes the argument, that the evil that arises to confront the Jews in every generation is, if not a direct descendant of Amalek, then an embodiment of its evil. And each time, that villain gains eternal fame. In the twentieth century, that place was taken by the devilish figure of Adolf Hitler, and in Europe in the last few weeks, that place is being attributed to a new occupant. We must remember this evil – in order that it might be forgotten from the world and no longer exist.

The contradiction in the Purim story exists at an even deeper level – the fact that we seem to be presented with a clear bad guy in Haman, and clear heroes in Mordechai and Esther. And yet, by the end of the story of Esther, it is the Jews who have killed over 75,000 Persians. It is a chapter of the Megillah that we often brush over, but it is very much there, and must be seen as an integral part of the story

At the heart of the command to blot out Amalek is yet another contradiction – that we blot out the memory of violence with yet more violence. We remind ourselves constantly of evil, but at the same time are required to vow its elimination from the world. So, when we read the Purim story to the end, the Jews of the story appear to have failed at this. And therefore, if we abhor violence and death, we are yet left with the question: How do we remember violence without perpetuating it?

This is a real question for many, on a personal level as well as a political one. How often we hear stories of abuse cycling through generations of families.

This cycle of violence has led some to be sceptical and suspicious of the festival of Purim. And in the twentieth century there were many progressive communities who simply did not celebrate it – in part because of its violence toward others, and because the story did not contain any divine agency. God is not mentioned once in the Purim story (though many interpreters think we should see God’s hand working behind the scenes to rescue the Jews). Of course, if God were involved, it makes the massacre of the Persians potentially even more problematic – did God sanction such violence?

If this is all so, why do we continue to celebrate Purim? What deeper spiritual and ethical meaning does it have for us? Some might say that it is simply an opportunity to let our hair down and enjoy ourselves. Absolutely – Purim should be a time for fun and frivolity, for dressing up and eating hamenstaschen. But those contradictions are still there, they nag away at us, they continue to offer a moral challenge as we read the megillah. It’s almost like the opposite of the Wizard of Oz – in the dreamland of Purim we are able to see everything in black and white – as either good or bad, one side or the other – while we know that the real world is in technicolour – that in the real world it is much harder to differentiate what is right and good from bad and evil – that it is easy to hiss Haman and cheer Mordechai, but when it comes to the majority of people, we are complex humans with a multitude of virtues and sins.

As in the Wizard of Oz, it is only by stepping outside of that world and entering into a dreamscape that we might understand the complexities of our world. How much we prefer our world of colour and nuance than we would like to live in a world like that of Purim – of absolute right and absolute wrong, in which we might end up continuing that cycle of violence. Although it might be exciting to follow that Yellow Brick Road, ultimately we only do it in order to get ourselves home.

Purim makes most sense when we see it in relation to the next festival in our calendar: Pesach – in which we recount the story of the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. There is a famous midrash about the angels who sang for joy following the Israelites successful crossing of the Red Sea, only to be immediately rebuked by God. ‘How can you sing,’ God asks them ‘when my creatures are suffering.’ The suffering creatures are, of course, the Egyptians who are drowning in the sea. On Seder Night we will recite the plagues that befell the Egyptian population when Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go from slavery. But we do so without glee and without parody. We do so somberly, removing some of our sweet wine with our fingertips as we recite each of the ten plagues. Our Seder loses at least some of its sweetness when we commemorate the suffering of others. Our Purimspiel does not lose any sweetness or joy from the naming of Haman’s ten sons (that both the plagues and Haman’s sons are numbered ten is surely no coincidence).

So on a metaphorical level, the process of moving out of Purim and into Pesach, is a process that reflects our growing up. We go from being the uncompromising adolescents of Purim, to becoming adults who understand the need to see things from the point of view of others, which involves seeing that others also suffer. In the Talmud, the rabbis ask when we should start re-familiarizing ourselves with the rituals and traditions surrounding Pesach, and the answer is: immediately after Purim. We emerge from Purim (which in Hebrew literally translates as ‘lots’, because it was by random lots that Haman chose the day on which they Jews were to be massacred), and immediately start working towards the Seder (which literally translates as ‘order’, because everything is done in a certain order around the table). From chaos to order; from a purposeless and drifting universe to one with moral direction.

We cannot have one without the other – we need, each year, to reenact the process – it’s part of how our annual festival cycle educates us, and tells us something about the world. So, these two festivals of Purim and Pesach leave us with a stark choice. Are we Purim? Are we resigned to a world of chaos and revenge; a world without compassion, in which there is no difference between sinned-against and sinning? Or are we Pesach? Are we determined to pursue freedom and justice, and live according to the ways of righteousness that we learn, not from abstract ideas or moralistic platitudes, but from living in the world with others? We have the next month to contemplate that choice.