The Paradox of Purim Through The Eyes of Kwan Gae

Purim is my least favorite holiday of the Jewish year. When I was a teenager, I managed to recognize the link between Purim and the biblical verse “Now go and strike down Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and ass.“ [I Sam. 15:3] Samuel was speaking to Saul, but in the narrative of the Torah the enmity with Amalek begins in the book of Exodus during the long escape from Egypt. It’s a dramatic scene: Amalek and his tribesmen attack the children of Israel when they are camped at a place called Rephidim, which means Testing-and-Argument. Legend says that Amalek attacked the stragglers, the weak, the ones who can’t keep up. Moses and Joshua assemble an army and strike back. Joshua is the general, but Moses is the muse; as long as his arms are raised, the Tribes of Israel prevail. In the end of the passage, the Torah states that God says, “I will totally obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.” [Exodus 17:14]

I was born in 1955, a member of the first post-Holocaust generation. By the time of this memory—I was 16 or 17—I had seen black-and-white footage of films the Nazis had made of their actions. More than 50 years later, I can still close my eyes and see an image of a Nazi soldier stepping on a baby’s skull as he walked through a trench piled with the bodies of dead Jews. I was appalled that the God I worshiped could advocate what amounted to genocide, and I began to wonder if I could believe in a God like that. So, I asked my father—who I admired, respected, and adored and who was a rabbi—what the Torah could possibly mean. All I remember of his answer was that I needed to evaluate the story in its historical context.

I was reminded of all this when I read an article in the Forward: “The Dark Side of Purim—Forward Thinking.”

As I’ve gotten older and talked with a variety of rabbis, I’ve come to see our literature—Torah, the Prophets, and so on (Tanakh)—as teaching by counter-example as much as anything else. The Tanakh isn’t history; it’s wisdom literature. Maybe a hard-to-understand story like the binding of Isaac is instructive about how not to be a parent.

When I read the end of “The Dark Side of Purim,” I was heartened. I’m not alone in my thinking. Purim is a topsy-turvy holiday, and some modern thinkers suggest the story (The Megillah of Esther) might be something like a historical novel. I particularly like the story about Hasidic master Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov that Shaul Madig relates at the end of his article:

During the Purim feast, Zvi Elimelekh suddenly stopped the festivities and said, “Saddle the horses and get the carriages, it is time to blot out Amalek.” His Hasidim were petrified. “What could the master mean?” Being obedient disciples, they got in their carriages and followed their rebbe. He rode into town to a local inn where the Polish peasants (the Amalekites of his day?) were engaged in their own drunken bash.

The rebbe and his disciples entered the inn. When the peasants saw them, they stopped dancing. The music stopped. Everyone circled around the rebbe and the Jews as they walked to the center of the dance floor. The room was silent. The rebbe looked at one of the peasants and put out his hand with his palm to the ceiling. Silence. The peasants looked at one another. Suddenly one of them stepped forward and took the rebbe’s hand. They slowly started dancing. The musicians began playing. In a matter of minutes, all the Hasidim and peasants were dancing furiously with one another.

If it’s Purim, then Passover can’t be far away. So my thoughts turn to another remarkable Jewish sage, Hillel (c. 110 BCE — 7 CE). Around and around my head his words go: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary.” ( Why say it that way?

I can’t know for sure. But to me, Hillel is saying that the stories of Judaism are as much about what not to do as they are about what to do.

We might ask: Who is Amalek anyhow? Maybe Amalek, like God, is in me and you. In that case, obliterating the memory of Amalek means to pass by the urge to harm others and find something different to do with anger.

As for me, I’m going to practice the ITF form Kwan Gae this week. The first move goes like this: Hold your hands in a high shield block (imagine you’re looking at the sun through the gap between your hands). When you’re ready, balance on the right foot, extend the left leg out at a 25 degree angle; simultaneously extend the left arm and snap the hand open; simultaneously thrust the right arm up with the hand clenched in a fist. The first time I tried it, I said to my master, “It’s really hard to balance, hold one hand open, and the other closed in a fist!”

My master observed, “It’s always hard to balance war and peace.”

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