JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review March 8, 2001 / 13 Adar, 5761

Purim: The dangers
of deism

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, as you departed from Egypt: How they ... cut down the weak who trailed behind you, when you were faint and weary ... You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens. Do not forget. ”

                       -- (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

How is it possible that the Torah commands us to annihilate another nation? And if it does, how are we better than those peoples who have tried to exterminate us throughout our history? Why is the nation of Amalek singled out for this extreme sentence over all our other enemies and oppressors?

In its victory over Egypt, Israel acquired much more than its own freedom: it acquired for the entire world a victory for moral order over moral anarchy, as well as a victory for commitment to the community of m ankind over self-serving oppression. By casting off the shackles of Egyptian domination and embracing its Divine mission, the fledgling nation of Israel symbolized the lofty potential of the human soul and the limitless capacity of human achievement.

This is what it means to be a "chosen people" --- that even when other nations may shrink from the obligations implicit in their own humanity, the Jewish people remain committed to carry the banner high as a reminder to the world of the godliness that resides within every human being.

But it is no simple job serving as the moral conscience of the world.

Indeed, many peoples have resented the Jews for setting so rigorous a standard. But only the nation of Amalek possessed such zeal to risk its very existence in hope of tearing down the banner and letting anarchy once again reign supreme.

It was not simply Amalek's attack upon the Jews -- it was the manner of their attack, how they cut down the weak who trailed behind.

In their opposition to moral absolutism, Amalek understands that the best strategy is not frontal attack. Far more effective is the steady chipping away of what is right and what is good, the persistent prodding of civilized society down one slippery slope after another, the philosophical erosion of values and beliefs by promoting cynicism, double-standards, and equivocation.

In the language of contemporary theology, Amalek is a nation of deists, asserting that the Creator resides in the heavens, that the human race resides upon the earth, and that there is no interaction between them whatsoever. It is an attractive belief, for it offers the comfort of a universe that is ordered and purposeful, while at the same time eliminating any obligation to an ultimate moral authority. In short, the philosophy of Amalek is nihilism masquerading as spirituality.

Just as Amalek risked their lives attempting to destroy Israel in the desert, so too did Haman the Wicked, viceroy to the king and descendant of Amalek, risk his own life to exterminate the Jews in ancient Persia. It was not enough for him to dominate the Jews or rule over them, for the very existence of a Jewish nation proclaims that man attains true greatness only by subjugating himself to a transcendent purpose unalterably defined by the Highest Authority. The holiday of Purim, therefore, celebrates not only Haman's downfall but a victory for all mankind in its aspiration for spiritual accomplishment.

Today, we face Amalek not as a nation but as an ideology, an egocentric belief in relative truth and moral autonomy. And now, just as thirty three centuries ago, it is Amalek's ideology that leads individuals and whole communities to hold corrupt values and make destructive decisions. By remembering Amalek, we remind ourselves that we are never entirely safe from the seductive whisperings of subjective self-interest.

And when we have turned away from moral compromise to stare unblinking into the face absolute truth, then the insidious philosophy of Amalek will be erased forever from the collective memory of all mankind.

JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School and Aish HaTorah in St. Louis, and writes a regular column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Send your comments by clicking here.


© 2001, Rabbi Yonason Goldson