Commentary for Purim

18 Mar

One of the most well-known customs of Purim is the custom to drown out the name of the story’s villain, Haman, by making noise and booing whenever his name is read.  This custom derives from the commandment to completely blot out the memory of the nation of Amalek, of whom Haman was a descendant.  That commandment, which is part of the special maftir Torah reading that we read every year on the Shabbat before Purim (Deut. 25:17-19), is bookended by two other commandments that seem to directly contradict it.  The first is to “remember what Amalek did to you” (the story of which we read from the Torah this morning), while the second, coming immediately after the commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek, is a strong but simple “do not forget!”


These commandments seem to be paradoxical.  How can we possibly “blot out the memory of Amalek” from the world if we are required to keep it in our national consciousness?  Indeed, the custom of blotting out Haman’s name creates this same paradox:  How can we possibly be successful in blotting his name out if everyone comes to shul to fulfill the custom of doing so?


When Amalek attacked the Israelites, they did not send out their army to meet the Israelite army in battle.  Instead they ambushed the Israelites, attacking from the rear of the Israelite column, where the majority of people were young, old, or frail: those too weak to defend themselves.  They wanted to kill as many people as possible, purely for the sake of seeing how many people they could kill.  For this reason, Amalek has become a metaphor for those who would prey on the weak, and those would kill and do evil purely for evil’s sake.  Though our comfortable lives sometimes make it easy for us to forget, such people do exist in the world, and if they gain power, they can commit horrible atrocities.  Just as Amalek emerged again to try to exterminate the Jews even after their crushing defeat at the hands of King Saul (which we read in yesterdays Haftarah), the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot, Theoneste Bagosora, and Saddam Hussein always emerge no matter how many times their ilk are defeated.

By remembering Amalek, we are training ourselves to be ever vigilant, so that we can stop their ilk from rising up before they can carry out their evil designs, just as (*SPOILER ALERT!*) Mordechai and Esther do to Haman in the story of Purim.  By confronting and defeating evil, we do our part to eliminate it from the world.

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