There is nothing mysterious about why Purim has had such a compelling hold on the psyche of the Jewish people throughout the ages. The figure of the despotic ruler (or his surrogate) who seeks to destroy us has been all-too present in our lives. This historical moment, of course, is no exception, with scores of JCCs terrorized and Jewish cemeteries desecrated in recent weeks.
That is precisely why I am so interested in a lesser-known, perhaps counter-intuitive dimension of the Purim story, as it appears in some of our sacred literature. In the Zohar we find a fascinating comment that equates the prototypical enemy, Amalek, with the yetzer hara (evil inclination) within each of us. (Zohar 3:160a, with thanks to Danny Matt for this reference.) Amalek? The classic enemy of the Jewish people – inside our own souls?
Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (18th C., Ukraine) elaborates this line of reasoning when he 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, s.v.“zachor et asher etc. v’atah ayef v’yageah v’lo yarei elohim,” trans. Rabbi Jonathan Slater.)
The Rebbe teaches that when we become aware that there is Amalek in the world—that is, in the world of our own hearts—we must hear the call to remember, to struggle against it, to return to goodness and to godliness. The eternal struggle against Amalek, according to Levi Yitzhak, is an inside job, a matter of our own ongoing work on ourselves.
Surely the mitzvah to remember Amalek is a piece of Torah that reminds us of the primary obligation to defend ourselves against those who may endanger us. This is a strain amply evident in our tradition, and our history has too often proven the wisdom and necessity of this command. So why would the Zohar and Rebbe Levi Yitzhak suggest that the biblical Amalek should also be seen as a part of our own souls?
This counter-voice in the tradition does not suggest that we should be cavalier about the real external threats to our survival. Surely, both the author of the Zohar and Rebbe Yitzhak were all too familiar with the reality of anti-Semitism.
Yet their radical interpretation challenges us not to allow external threats to keep us from continuing the work of cleansing and refining our own souls. Sometimes the fiercest enemy (and this can be so hard to remember) is our own yetzer hara, the negative instincts within us, that lead us to make choices devoid of wisdom and compassion, and to imagine that we can live our lives without divine guidance. According to this interpretation, the mitzvah to remember Amalek exhorts us to continually refocus on the lifelong work of becoming holy, as God created us to be.
This counter-intuitive explanation challenges us mightily, since it is particularly difficult to turn our attention within when our security is threatened from without. But it reminds us of who we are, people devoted to serving God in the world, even as we maintain vigilance against harm planned against us.
May the paradoxes of Purim deepen our self-understanding this year, and may it truly be a day of joy for us and for all people.