Facing the Amalek Within

We are living through unprecedented times.

At home, the UK faces the most serious political and constitutional crisis since the Second World War. Division sears through our political parties, through Parliament, through regions of our country, through communities and families.

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of the democratic State of Israel, has brokered an electoral deal with far-right Habayit Hayehudi, to join forces with Otzma Yehudit, an extreme right-wing party led by followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Otzma Yehudit is described by the main-stream as anti-Arab, and racist. The Board of Deputies, the representative body of British Jews, has refused to raise any criticism.

Across the southern hemisphere, Cyclone Idai, the worst weather disaster to hit the southern hemisphere, has affected an estimated 2.6 million people, devasting Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe;  destroying almost everything in its path, killing and injuring thousands of people. Torrential rain and wind storms continue to hit the area. Mothers, children, fathers, cling to roof tops and the tops of trees, if they have been lucky enough to survive; seeing all their worldly belongings, the totality of their lives and livelihoods, swept away in the floodwaters.

In Christchurch, the first funerals have been taking place for the 50 Muslims murdered at prayer in their mosques in quiet, peace-loving New Zealand. There have been brave words, speaking out for peace, understanding and solidarity. There have been acts of radical kindness and love.

Nadim Than, the uncle of Talha Rashid and brother of Naeem Rashid — who tried to tackle the gunman when he first entered the Al Noor Mosque during Friday Prayer, only to be shot and killed — welcomed not just long-missed brothers and other relatives from Pakistan at his home on Wednesday, but also close to 100 visitors paying their respects: Christians, Hindus, Sikhs; well-wishers from Fiji, Australia, England, and New Zealand.

Also on Wednesday, hundreds of mourners gathered to bury two victims killed at the Al-Noor mosque. Zaid Mustafa, a teenager who was injured in the attack, attended the funeral of his father, Kahled, in a wheelchair. "I shouldn't be standing in front of you. I should be lying beside you," said Zaid Mustafa.

Another of the victims was 44 year old Hosne Ahmed, who was shot as she ran back into the mosque to try to save her husband, who uses a wheelchair. Her husband Farid, survived the attack. Farid later told journalists, “I lost my wife, but I don’t hate the killer. I don’t have any grudge against him. I have forgiven him and am praying for him.”

We are living through unprecedented times.

This Shabbat we read Parashat Tzav, one of the many sedras in the Book of Vayikra that details the system of sacrifices in the Mishkan, the mobile tabernacle in the Sinai desert. This system forms the blue-print for the sacrificial cult that constitutes the major mode of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem once the Israelites enter the Land of Israel, and that will endure for the best part of a thousand years. It is a system that imposes order on everyday life; a system that creates a framework for building relationship between the People and God; a system that marks out clear boundaries of behaviour for the People and for God; a covenant of mutually agreed expectations.

Yet our tradition recognises that there are times when the system breaks down. When chaos and turmoil break through the carefully constructed order, relationships disintegrate, and the mutually accepted covenant that holds the fabric of society together is shredded, leaving us feeling powerless in the face of forces beyond our control.

This week we celebrated the festival of Purim, when the Jews of Persia, as a result of lots drawn by their adversaries, face physical annihilation. King Ahashverosh is swayed by the counsel of the anti-semite Haman. It is only thanks to the courage of Queen Esther, fortuitously placed in a favourable position close to the King, that the Jews escape genocide by a lucky inch. The story of Purim paints a dark world: King Ahashverosh is a parody, in his drunken incompetence and indecision, of the Divine King of Heaven. The Divine King, however, makes no appearance in the Purim story, and is notable only by His absence. The human players are left to stumble alone through the Kafkaesque landscape and intrigues.

Last Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, we read from a second scroll, describing how Amelek attacked the stragglers amongst the Children of Israel as they journeyed in the desert. Amalek came to represent, in the rabbinic mind, all of the enemies that the Jewish People have ever faced, from Haman in the Purim story all the way down to Hitler in modern times. Amalek becomes the prototype for the external enemy bent on physically destroying the Jews throughout our history.

In Chassidic thought, however, this concept is dealt a radical reversal. According to the Zohar, Amalek, represents the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, within each of us.

In his great work, the Kedushat Levi, Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (18th C., Ukraine) writes:

Not only are Jews commanded to wipe out Amalek, who is the descendant of Esau, but each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart. So long as the descendants of Amalek are in the world—and each of us is also a small world, when the power of evil [that which leads us to sin] arises in each of us, Amalek is still in the world, then the reminder [to wipe out Amalek] calls out from the Torah.

(Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, Drash L’Purim, trans. Rabbi Jonathan Slater.)

The Rebbe teaches that we must be constantly vigilant concerning Amalek’s presence in the world—that is, in the internal world of our own hearts— to become aware of it, to struggle against it, to return our yetzer hara to goodness, and to reunite our yetzer hara with its ultimate source in Divine Holiness.

Let us each be vigilant in wiping out Amalek from the deepest recesses of our hearts, whether this struggle takes the form of working for unity where there is division, speaking out when others remain silent, taking up agency where we feel powerless, or performing acts of radical kindness to those closest as well as those distant from us. Then will Amalek cease to exist in the world, and true Shalom - integrity, wholeness and peace - be experienced by us all.

Ken yehi ratzon