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Eradicating Cynicism

Eradicating Cynicism

Purim and the war against meaning.

by

In the midst of the happiness of Purim lurks the seemingly incongruous mitzvah to eradicate the memory of Amalek. Historically, Jews don’t seem to be able to muster up a lot of aggression even in the best of circumstances. The happy, slightly besotted and be-costumed Jew, who lets loose with a cranking of his lethal gragger at the mention of Haman, is about as militant as the Purim spirit seems to produce.

The details of what Amalek did are sparse and at first glance don’t seem to warrant such a dramatic reaction. The Torah tells us that Amalek attacked the nascent Jewish nation from behind, targeting the weak and the tired, and they “did not fear God.” For that we are to eradicate every vestige of their memory?

The violent reaction to Amalek is so out of proportion because after 210 years of slavery in Egypt we are told “do not despise Egypt” because, after all, they hosted (!) you in their country for hundreds of years. So why does Amalek, who attacked the Jewish people just once, become our eternal enemy? What is it about Amalek that warrants such an unforgiving approach? There is obviously more going on under the surface.

Amalek attacked right after a slave nation – downtrodden, beaten, lacking spirit – was given a hint of a vision of what they could become. Deep in the quicksand of constant, unrelenting labor, where the Jewish people could only see was the endless, painful plodding towards meaninglessness and nothingness, there was a glimmer of light. The Almighty Who reached down and plucked the Jewish people out of the quagmire of Egypt spoke of love and caring. And that love and caring came with a underlying subtext: There is a goal and a purpose.

Infused with a new spirit, buoyed by the message that we can transform this dark and scary world, the nation began its tentative journey toward Sinai and toward its mission.

The nations of the world were stunned into silence. The destruction of the world’s superpower – by the only Super Power – shook their foundation of belief in a meaningless world. They, too, were moved by the unfolding drama of the Jewish people’s redemption from Egypt, awestruck by the miracles and love displayed by their Creator.

And then one nation came charging down the gangplank. The Jewish people were nowhere near Amalek’s turf. Amalek traveled far to wage battle. This was a personal war – a battle to the death. The viciousness with which they fought underscored their panic and desperation. If there is a nation that bespeaks the supernatural, if there are people who cling to a higher vision of meaning and morality, of responsibility and purpose, that means I can never totally relax on my armchair again.

Years later, Haman, the descendant of Amalek (and perhaps the ancestor of Hitler), echoed these same sentiments. Those people have got to go.

So Amalek attacked the Jewish people, dispelling the wonder and awe and bringing the world its bearings back. Everyone could now go back to not sweating the small stuff – and to Amalek, it’s all small stuff.

Amalek attacks the very idea of meaning.

Amalek was the wisecrack in the back of the room. Just as the soul stirs and begins to entertain the possibility that all those inchoate yearnings have substance, someone makes a cynical joke. And soundlessly, the window slides shut. Relax. There is nothing out there after all.

But it is too easy to talk about Amalek as an external evil. Amalek, with all its ferocious reality, only holds a mirror up to us so that we can see ourselves. Deep inside us, is that same little Amalek, saying the same thing: “You think this world can be a better place? You think you can make a difference? You think you were chosen for a mission? Don’t be so naïve and embarrassingly unsophisticated!”

Amalek attacks when we are “tired and weak,” when our self-confidence and connection to God is shaky. He rips the joy of purposefulness out from under our feet and runs away laughing.

The essence of Amalek, inside and out, rebels at the idea of something to strive for. He attacks the very idea of meaning.

While evil must be eradicated at its source, our celebration of Purim throughout our long history has focused on destroying the self-hating tyrant in our own hearts, that idol of cynicism that threatens to engulf us, who waves his hatchet menacingly, beseeching us to live a life of mediocrity and superficiality.

Purim is a day of love and joy, not violence and anger, when salvation by God’s Hidden Hand rests us on the delicate and incredibly fragile bubble of hope and purpose.

March 12, 2016

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