Purim and the problem of Evil
The famous joke about Jewish holidays goes: "They tried to kill us, we were saved - let's eat!" The joke not only celebrates the eternal narrative of the 'persecuted Jew,' but also jests about the considerable gap between the holiday stories that emphasizes values and content versus the practical elements of how they are celebrated today. On the face of things Purim is a good example of this dissonance. Ostensibly, the story is about an external enemy - Haman - who wants to destroy the Jewish people. Ultimately, he not only fails to destroy us, but also falls into his own trap and the people of Israel are able to turn the tables and reverse the fate planned for them by their enemies. The Purim festivities - the meal, drunkenness, strange foods, costumes and frivolity seem at first glance to be incongruent with the Purim story, they seem as external as the costumes we don.
Perhaps this gap is not as wide as it first appears if we consider the connection our Sages make between Haman and the Amalekite people ("erase the memory of Amalek.") Through this link, the story of Purim is transformed from a unique local event to an event in the historical chain of the ongoing struggle between the people of Israel and the people of Amalek. For the Sages, Purim ceased to be a private struggle of Mordecai and Esther, or even of the Jewish people, but part of the eternal cosmic battle between evil and good; Between Amalek and Hashem: "For the Lord has sworn by His throne that the Lord will make war on Amalek from generation to generation" (Exodus 17:16).
The Sages’ conception of the identity of Amalek is very complex, however. The Gemara in Gittin 57b says: "Na'aman was a resident of Hevah, Nebuzaradan was a son of Haman who studied Torah in Bnei Brak, and the sons of Sisera taught his children in Jerusalem, and Sennacherib’s sons learned Torah in public. Who are they? Shemaiah and Avtalyon. " It turns out, then, that Haman's seed is alive and well, but no longer in the same “Hamanic” character and personality that we are familiar with. The groundbreaking idea that the Gemara suggests is that there is a way back from the absolute evil. According to the Gemara in Gittin, Nebuzaradan, who slaughtered more than three million people during the destruction of the first temple, repents and becomes one of our people. The descendants of Sennacherib, who is responsible for the exile of the Ten Tribes, are no less than Shemaiah and Avtalyon - the sages who are responsible for passing the tradition of the Oral Torah to the student. And if that were not enough, even Haman's sons learned Torah in Bnei Brak! The obvious conclusion is that we do not wipe out Amalek if he no longer acts like Amalek. Even those whom we have portrayed as absolute evil can change their nature. “Venahafoch hu” implies that the seed of Haman, Amalek, can learn Torah within us, as one of us.
This paradoxical concept that even the most archetypal, absolute evil can be transformed into good is a broad consciousness of the so-called "Mochin deGadlut" - a kind of holding opposites. On an average day, most of us cannot hold both ends of such a radical string at the same time. Purim gives us the opportunity to escape our normal conceptions and to experience a reality in which we can confront the complexity and diversity of life. This is the altered perception of "not distinguishing between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai." Holy drunkenness holds the potential of the flexibility of awareness. It can be a tool that enables the expansion of perspective and the inclusion of contradictions. The concept of "venahafoch hu" means acknowledging the existence of good and evil, but recognizing that the way we experience them is a product of our own mental and social constructs. . In this sense, feasting and drunkenness can help us reach a complex consciousness that does not cancel out our everyday assumptions, but enlightens them from a different perspective.
In some ways, the Chassidic masters took their understanding of the commandment to wipe out Amalek a step further. The Kedushat Levi said: "Every Jew must erase the evil part that is buried within his heart, which is called Amalek." The holy Jew of Peshischa said, "The commandment to wipe out Amalek continually and constantly in all generations is to remove the trait of pride." In the Hasidic world, Amalek, the representative of evil, is no longer an external reality or a certain personality, but a part of the internal self. The cosmic drama described above takes place inside me, and it is my job to recognize my own dark shadow and not to be tempted to think that salvation is in canceling the external "other". As long as we exist, Amalek will be within us. And this has nothing to do with Haman or his sons, - for they have long been studying Torah in Bnei Brak.
On Purim we are tested: what can we learn about ourselves, when we release some of our ingrained concepts and look deeply into the light and shadow of our own souls.