Sunday, March 07, 2004

In addition to being Purim, of course, today is the tenth yahrzeit of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, Hy"d.

On that note, let's move right on to the question of Amalek. Many who tend to be made uncomfortable by certain laws of the Torah try to find all sorts of rationalizations which essentially negate the halacha of wiping out Amalek. Others will stress that they in no way mean to deny the actual halacha, but find many more spiritual and esoteric meanings to the concept.

As the dedication above may indicate, I'm not one to be made uncomfortable by halachos, especially this one. However- and bearing in mind that I find some of the various points made by those just mentioned quite attractive- listening the haftorah of Parshas Zachor yesterday reminded me once more of my question why such pursuits are even necessary.

To put it simply: The text in Shmuel makes it quite clear that Shaul killed every member of the nation of Amalek except for Agag, who was then killed by Shmuel. According to P'shat, then, the mitzvah of Mechiyas Amalek, in the literal sense, no longer applies. True, Midrashim tell us about others surviving, about Agag impregnating women in the meantime, and so on, but since when are halachos learned from Aggadata?

One response to this is to point out that within less than the span of a generation, in the same sefer, Amalek is once again referred to as a living, vibrant nation. Perhaps the Midrashim mean to explain that. So we can then move a step further:

It's a basic point of halacha that the various nations at issue in Tanach simply don't exist anymore. For this reason, we don't have to worry if a ger, say, is from Moav, Ammon, Mitzraim, or Edom, all of which would have issues. We also don't worry about the seven nations of Canaan, and so on. Jewish tradition attributes this fact to Assyria engaging in their practice of mixing up nations. We don't even have to go back that far, as a simple examination of today's Middle East shows us that all of the areas discussed in Tanach are now populated by people whose ethnicity is Arab and/or Muslim, erasing all previous civilizations.

Now- if halacha has erased, say, Ammon and Moav, why are we to assume it hasn't erased Amalek as well?

Despite all that, I hasten to point out that Amalek- and, I daresay, the halachos of eliminating it- clearly lives today in the form of those who would kill Jews, unfortunately all too common today. Hence the dedication to the late Dr. Goldstein, one of my grandfather's later talmidim and a hero of Israel. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

On a lighter note (it is Purim, after all):

Reading the Megillah for the womenfolk of the family last night, I was struck by the masterful use of language throughout. No, more than masterful- utterly human. Again and again we see the plain and unchanging human psychology of both the characters and author of the Megillah. To give a couple of examples:

-Haman asks Zeresh and his "ohavov" (literally "loved ones," or, more accurately, "close friends) for advice. Later, his plans in ruins, he returns to them and tells them (once again, his "ohavov") the story. And who answers him (in the same pasuk!)? His "chachamav," his wise men. All of a sudden, to use the old joke, they've stopped saying "we." You're goin' down, H-man, to paraphrase Chili Palmer.

-When Esther first appears before Achashveirosh to ask his help, he offers her half his kingdom. Serious? Of course not. But he doesn't treat her seriously as well. He probably thinks she wants a new dress or something. (Hey, I'm not the sexist, he is.) Again and again he makes this offer- until she says what she wants. Suddenly, he realizes that there's a lot more to this queen than he thought. The next time she appears before him to ask for something, the language he uses is the same- but the offer of half the kingdom is dropped. In the spirit of Purim, we can suggest that now he's worried she'll actually take him up on it (well, no, not that she wouldn't do a better job of it), but, more seriously, we can suggest that all joking is done now.

Also note that while she touches the staff he extends to her the first time around, she doesn't do so the second time. I'm not sure what to read into that (although I know a certain professor of mine would think of something appropriately ribald), but it seems to indicate a changed status of Esther.

There are a number of similar touches throughout the Megillah. There are those who doubt the historicity of the book, but without going into that, it certainly seems like the portraits of the people within are quite true to life.

One final point about the Megillah- or, to be a bit more accurate, the Megillah I read from last night:

This Megillah was written by a Sofer in Europe- Mir, to be exact (there's a stamp)- sometime in, if I had to guess, the late 1920's or early 1930's and was passed down through a generation or two thus far. It's really quite gorgeous- nowadays, sifrei torah and the like are very cookie-cutter exact, with precisely written letters and the like, with no individual stamp or handwriting. This Megillah harkens back to the days of calligraphy. Ahhhh.

Anyway, you may have heard of the famous bit about how a series of small and large letters in the list of Haman's sons, which have been written that way for at least a thousand years or so, point out the final fate of the Nazis at Nuremeberg. I'm not one for Torah codes and the like, but this is one bit of compelling stuff I can go for.

Whenever I see that in this Megillah, written by a sofer who I feel safe in assuming was a victim (in one way or another, at least) of Hitler, it gives me a bit of comfort- here he was, writing those letters simply because they'd always been written that way, with no idea what was about to break out in Europe- and that he was writing about part of what would be the ultimate salvation. Scant comfort, I know, to he himself as he suffered, but it's part of the overall message of Purim- the hidden hand of God, the salvation prepared before the disaster even strikes.

Tomorrow is Shushan Purim, and thus thirty days before Pesach. Since we're supposed to start learning about Pesach a month before it begins, maybe I'll have an observation about the seder then. Keep tuned...

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