I ask my seventh grade students: “Are there evil people?”
“No,” they say. “There are people who do evil things, but they are not necessarily evil people.”
“OK,” I ask. “Are there good people?”
“Oh, yes!” they say. Then, they proceed to name as many as they could.
Get it? Here is the problem. Our young people — and a large chunk of our larger culture, believe that there are good people.
But, when it comes to naming evil people, they are far more reticent. They unwittingly quote John Martyn, who sang: “I don’t wanna know about evil. I only want to know about love.”
Perhaps it is because right-wingers and conservatives have all but hijacked that moral category.
As in: when President George W. Bush referred to “evil doers,” and President Trump’s insistence on calling out the “very bad hombres” who are amassed on our southern border.
But, this is what we know. There are evil people in the world. Evil is a reality in this world. What happened in the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand is as real a manifestation of evil as you can find.
Which brings me to this week’s holiday, Purim — and a particular custom that we associate with it.
Some of you might know that my geeky hobby is collecting fountain pens.
Whenever I prepare to purchase a pen, I need to see how well it writes.
Several years ago, I found myself in a pen store on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.
I was trying out a pen. I took the pen, wrote the word Amalek on it, and then scribbled it out.
The man behind the counter saw what I was doing, and his eyes grew moist.
“I haven’t seen anyone do that, since I was a small child in Poland. My grandfather was a sofer [a scribe for Torah scrolls, mezuzot, tefilin, and other sacred texts]. That is how he would try out his quill before writing.”
I do not know where I learned that custom, but it is apparently a venerable. No less a personage than the Canadian Jewish novelist, Mordecai Richler, has the same memory — of his grandfather likewise blotting out the name of Amalek.
For that is the custom on Purim — to blot out the name of Haman, the descendant of Amalek, the genocidal desert raider, the archetypal murderous anti-Semite: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt-how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear…. You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
Thus it is a mitzvah to blot out the name of Amalek. Amalek is the symbol of cosmic evil and anti-Semitism in our world — the ancestor of all those who hate us, the ancestor of Haman, whose name must also be blotted out.
Amalek is the symbol of all that strikes out not only against us but against human decency and civilization. His presence evokes a world in which there is no yirat Elohim, no “awe of God,” a world that lacks a religious and ethical sensibility towards life.
Some commentators say that Amalek is internal — a generalized spirit of hatred and evil that dwells within every individual. The late nineteenth century British clergyman, Joseph Exell, suggested: “Every pure soul has its Amalek. It has to content with the Amalek of an evil heart; of a wicked world; and of fallen angels.
Other teachers refuse to internalize Amalek. Amalek is real, they say — and they are ready to assign their own candidates to that ancient identity.
- One commentator identified Amalek with the primordial serpent in the Garden of Eden.
- Some American Protestant theologians believed that the Native Americans were the descendants of Amalek.
- The late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the spiritual father of the racist ideology that is so present in some corners of Israeli politics, believed that the Arabs — more accurately, the Palestinians — were Amalek. Thus, we must destroy them.
This is dangerous stuff. Because once you identify something or someone with Amalek, there can be no discussion, no negotiation. Only extermination is appropriate.
Still, I look at our times, and at recent events, and I wonder: where is Amalek today?
I turn to the great American rabbi, David Einhorn, one of the intellectual fathers of Reform Judaism. In the days leading up to the Civil War, Einhorn preached in Baltiomore, and he was a staunch abolitionist. Advocates of slavery threatened him, and he fled across the Mason-Dixon Line to Philadelphia.
Yes, Einhorn believed that slavery was the spirit of Amalek, as was the confederacy (admittedly, not a good career move when you are working in Baltimore).
It is Amalek’s seed, wherever the evil and wicked rule…wherever rude violence with cheaply bought courage makes war upon defenseless innocence, and wherever a majority in the service of falsehood directs its blows with ruthless fists against the very face of a weak minority.
You ask me if Amalek still exists.
We encountered Amalek in the guise of the shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Why am I not even mentioning his name?
Because, he like Amalek and his descendant, Haman, deserves to have his name blotted out.
To my Muslim friends, colleagues, and neighbors:
We are with you. We will not forget.