If you’re never sorry
Then you can’t be forgiven
If you’re not forgiven
Then you can’t be forgotten
If you’re not forgotten
Then you must live forever
If you live forever
You cannot be reborn
Pound of Flesh, Regina Spektor
I was lucky enough to catch Regina Spektor perform recently, thanks to a generous friend and colleague who invited me. The convert was terrific, the cause (HIAS) important, but these words have crowded out nearly every other memory from my mind.
Purim celebrates the victory of Mordechai and Esther over Haman, and the victory of the Jews over Amalek, our ancient nemesis. On the Shabbat prior to Purim, we read Parshat Zachor, a brief set of verses from Deuteronomy 25 commanding us to recall our first encounter with Amalek:
יז זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם.
יח אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ–וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים.
יט וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב, בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה-אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח.
17 Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt;
18 how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God.
19 Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.
Even as a child, I remember confronting the paradox of being commanded to remember what Amalek did on the one hand, and to blot out all remembrance of Amalek on the other hand… and to not forget to blot out Amalek’s memory. And then I listen to Regina Spektor, and I feel like she’s solved the mystery. Amalek can never be forgotten because Amalek is the evil that will not apologize or seek forgiveness. Amalek achieves eternal notoriety, and in a sense lives forever, but is forever unable to be reborn, to be redeemed. Jews will always remember to blot out Amalek, and they will never forget.
Zachor. Remember. Never forget. I know these words. I know them from another context. Not Purim, but the Holocaust. And now I’m confused. Hitler and the Nazis are the only historical people to widely be considered Amalek. Not in a racial, genealogical way, but in the fashion of rich Jewish irony, by explicitly rejecting racial descent as a requirement for being Amalek. And even though the Amalek label has been applied to others in Jewish history, like the Romans, it hasn’t stuck to anyone quite like it has for the Nazis.
It’s a weird thing, to have Amalek crop up in our language again, in relation to the Holocaust. Though our original battle with Amalek was difficult, the Purim story presents an overwhelming victory over Amalek. No Jews are harmed in the making of this miracle. No casualties in battle, no slaves who never saw redemption – just the opposite, Jews were elevated to positions of greater authority, they wre feared by their enemies, and many non-Jews converted (As per the Megillah, anyway).
Purim is a Jewish fantasy, a flight of wish-fulfillment. Even without God’s overt presence, everything just goes the Jews’ way. It’s a daydream that an exilic Jew might have about how God is still looking out for us, and how our greatest enemies, those who harbor us ill will for no reason other than being Jews, will be defeated. Purim is the idyll, but the Holocaust (and the pogroms, and inquisitions, and all the troubles of the Exile) is the reality.
So how should we relate to our struggle against the enemies of our own day? Are we like Moses, Aaron and Hur, trying to keep arms raised to the heavens, trying to invoke God’s will? Do we take up the sword like Joshua and wage a war of attrition, suffering casualties and slowly, by force and by blood eke out small victories? Or is Mordechai’s realpolitik tinged with religious certainty the correct path? I’m not sure, but I look forward to Purim, and to enjoying the beautiful daydream.