Shabbat Zachor: The Tragedy of Revenge

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Shabbat Zachor

“After these events, King Achashverosh promoted Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite and advanced him; he placed his seat above all his fellow ministers. All the king’s servants at the king’s gate kneeled and bowed before Haman, for so had the king commanded concerning him. But Mordechai would not kneel or bow. . . ”  (Book of Esther, 3:1-2)

Good evening!

This week we observe two related liturgical occasions within a few hours of each other. On Shabbat morning, we read a special concluding Torah reading and a special reading from the prophets, each related to Amalek, the enemy nation of the Jews whose descendant is the antagonist of the Purim story. These readings, calling us to “remember [zachor] what Amalek did to you,” give the Shabbat before Purim its name.

Then, a few hours later, after nightfall Saturday night, Purim begins, and we read the scroll of Esther, with its famous hero, Mordecai, and its villain, Haman, both mentioned in the verse above, which contains the plot device which propels the story to its conclusion: Haman is incensed that Mordecai will not bow to him as the king’s viceroy. Yet it’s not at all apparent why Mordecai won’t bow to the king’s second-in-command; after all, Avraham bowed to the visitors in the desert and to the residents of Hevron. There are other examples in the Bible as well; it is not an obvious Jewish principle of the times that one would not bow before a man of high station.

So something else is going on, and I believe it’s found in the family trees of both Mordecai and Haman. We learn from the verse above that Haman was a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek who was slain by the prophet Samuel after being defeated by the first king of Israel, Saul. (Cf. 1 Sam 15– this is the haftarah for  Shabbat Zachor.) On the other hand, we are told that Mordecai is a direct descendant of Kish, and a man of the tribe of Benjamin. (Cf. Esther 2:5)

Who was Kish, you might ask? Kish, since you asked, was the father of King Saul, meaning Mordecai himself is of that royal, albeit deposed, family. (Cf. 1 Sam 9:1-2.) Now, to be clear, the genealogy of Mordecai is not meant to be taken literally; Kish lived hundreds of years before Mordecai, not just a few generations as in the text. I think the abbreviated list of ancestors is meant to give us the highlights of the family line and tell us something important- namely, that the enmity between Haman and Mordecai goes way back to the time of Saul and Agag. It is entirely understandable that Mordecai would not bow down to a descendant of his familial enemy- and it is equally understandable, but not justifiable, that Haman would seek to humiliate and destroy a man associated with defeating the king of his own family’s history.

So what do we do with all this? Shabbat Zachor reminds us of Amalek and Agag, thus putting in context the seemingly arbitrary hatred of Haman and unbreakable pride of Mordecai. Perhaps these historical reminders give the story of Esther a tragic element, in that long-simmering resentments broke out in such a way that tens of thousands died in the cycle of revenge and defense. Ironically, while the readings of Shabbat Zachor remind us of the evil of Amalek, they also humanize, to a degree, the Amalekite Haman, who is now seen as the willful prisoner of a long-standing cycle of violence and war. This does not excuse his evil choices, but does help explain them.

On Purim, we laugh as the wicked Haman got hung from the gallows he made for Mordecai; but every other day of the year, we are to refrain from rejoicing over the downfall of our enemies. It is a tragedy that hatred persists over generations; on Purim our joy overcomes our sadness, but it by no means diminishes the fundamental Jewish obligation to heal hatred when we can, and fight it when we must.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,

Rabbi Neal

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