Memory and Integrity

After writing a few days ago about Purim as a time when we confront our multifaceted, layered selves and are called to experiment with and explore our own personalities, I would like to raise another, similarly important aspect of Purim, which on some level directs us in the opposite direction.

Two days ago, on Shabbat Zachor, we read aloud the Torah portion containing the commandment never to forget, what Amalek did to us and to make sure to wipe out all memory of Amalek (DEU, 25:17-19):

זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ–וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים. וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב, בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה-אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח.

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

Besides the ethical problem of commanding genocide, this short passage contains a logical contradiction in that it asks us to make sure to remember and not forget to wipe out the memory of Amalek. If we are commanded to remember a thing, how can we be made to wipe out the memory of that same thing?

In addition to the Torah portion, we also read about Amalek in the Haftorah (Shmuel 1, 15):

The prophet Shmuel receives the divine command to anoint Sha’ul as king over Israel in order to wipe out the Amalekites, including all men, women, children and possession. Sha’ul then goes to battle and triumphs over Amalek, but spares the king Agag and takes the cattle as spoil. G-D then instructs Shmuel to relate to Sha’ul that he has taken the crown from him.

So far so good. Again, morally outragous, but let’s for the moment ignore this.

What follows then is an unusually long and prosaic dialog between Shmuel and Sha’ul, in which Shmuel tries to make Sha’ul admit that he has sinned. What is interesting is that the author of the Tanakh seems to be much more interested in conveying the subtleties of Sha’ul’s reaction to Shmuel’s criticism than in the actual story line. So this is how the dialog progresses (in summary):

Shmuel goes looking for Sha’ul, only to find out that he is busy building a monument for himself:

  • And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him: “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.”
  • And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”
  • Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.”
  • Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Speak.”
  • And Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel.
    And the Lord sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’
    Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”
  • And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction.
    But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.”
  • And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? … Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.”
  • Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.”
  • And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. …”
  • Then he said, “I have sinned; …”

In my eyes, this is one of the most brilliant lessons of failed leadership that I have ever heard. We know that Shmuel loved  Sha’ul very much. When he came to look for him, Sha’ul sensed immediatly that something was wrong – and he knew exactly what it was. But instead of owning up for it, he pretends everything is fine. In German you call this “Flucht nach vorne”, or “Flight forwards”, meaning: instead of admitting a mistake, you make it seem as if it is a virtue.

Shmuel knows exactly what is going on, but he wants Sha’ul to admit it himself. Therefore he asks seemingly innocently: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears…?” – expecting Sha’ul to own up for his mistake.

Instead Sha’ul blames the people. At this point Shmuel can’t take it anymore and yells “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me this night.” – You have done wrong!”

How does Sha’ul react? “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord…. But the people took of the spoil…” – Still trying to blame the people!

After Shmuel relays to him that the crown will be taken from him, Sha’ul reluctantly admits: “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” – he still does not own up to his responsibility. It takes another round of rebuke from Shmuel until he finally says “I have sinned” without further assigning blame to anyone else.

To me, Sha’ul’s statement: “because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” is the crux. He was more concerned with the people’s opinion of him than doing what he was supposed to do. This is why his leadership failed. This is why his crown was “Sha’ul” (שאול) – borrowed. If you borrow something, you pretend to have it, but you don’t own it.

To me, one lesson of Sha’ul and Amalek, which relates to Purim is the following:

As elaborated in my last post, on the one hand we should recognize our layered characters and explore our complex personalities. We should be careful not to draw easy conclusions about ourselves and other people based on prejudices and oversimplifications.

But at the same time, we have to own up to our behavior. We have to reject moral relativism, where everything goes. There must be personal responsibility to perform our duties to society despite and because of our acceptance that everyone is different and unique. Just because the people demand something does not make it necessarily the right thing to do.

There is a certain contradiction here: Accept each others differences, but still hold each other responsible. Somehow this reminds me of the weird contradiction to simultaneously remember and forget. To me, the deeper lesson is to recognize that we always find ourselves suspended between two extremes:

Remember but also forget!

Own up to your duties, take responsibility and hold each other responsible, but also be forgiving, kind, tolerant and understanding of each other!

It is this dynamic, oscillating and almost uncomfortable movement between these extremes that Purim leaves us in. The important thing is to be aware of it. We must actively remember to forget and actively forget to remember. We must actively strive to make this world better and to wipe out evil where necessary, and simultaneously strive to be kind, tolerant and understanding.

The way to achieve this is to try and be honest with ourselves. On Purim, when we get to let loose of our rigid perceptions of our personalities, we get the opportunity to re-calibrate our lives according to standards that go beyond our everyday routines. We get to glimpse at ourselves from above and focus not on externals (what “the people” are thinking), but inwards. We ridicule external appearances, mask ourselves and get drunk, so we can focus on what lies beyond our routines and reevaluate all aspects of our lives: ourselves, family, friends, community, society and our respective responsibilities, rights and duties. It’s like a moral reset button.

Oftentimes David HaMelech is brought as a counterexample to Sha’ul’s failure. But I want to mention another, more recent leader who inspired me with her ethical determinism not to give in to the will of “the people”. A few weeks ago Angela Merkel gave a press conference on German TV where she explained and justified her decision to let many hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly from the middle east, enter Germany. Among other things, one statement in particular caused a lot of commotion in the German press:

Ich muss ganz ehrlich sagen: Wenn wir jetzt anfangen, uns noch entschuldigen zu müssen dafür, dass wir in Notsituationen ein freundliches Gesicht zeigen, dann ist das nicht mein Land!

I have to say it in all honesty: If we now have to start apologizing for presenting a kind face in situations of emergency [plight/distress], then this is not my country!

Whether or not her policies are wise, time will tell. But in my book, this is a statement made by a real leader. Someone who did not lose her moral compass in the political jungle. Someone who is able to stay true to her calling even if it is widely unpopular and will almost certainly cost her politically.

May we be blessed with leaders that make their humanity their guiding principle. And may we and they be blessed with passion and compassion to make things better. זכור – Merke(l)!

Purim Sameach,


Be an onion!

About a week ago, I went to the monthly Farbrengen at my friend’s house. I enjoy going there every month for multiple reasons: First, it gives me an opportunity to get together with people that I like a lot, but don’t usually get to see. Second, they usually serve fantastic herring and kigel and some decent whiskey too. Third, I like listening to the rabbi and singing chassidic melodies.

The whole nostalgic experience brings me back to a time, when learning and living Torah was an essential part of my everyday life. Since for quite some years this has not been the case, I enjoy being transported to this world once a month even more so. Of course, some of the things the rabbi says sound strange, or just plain wrong to my modern and liberal ears, but there are almost always some ideas that work their way up into my fed-up, busy brain, start festering there and get a life of their own. One such idea – connected to Purim and the month of Adar – I would like to share with you.

The rabbi told a story of the Lubvitcher’s “Mitteler Rebbe”, son of the “Alter Rebbe”, the Ba’al haTanya. The story likely takes place at the beginning of the 19th century in the rebbe’s home town Liubavichi, in modern day Belarus.

At the time, the Rebbe had already established himself as a major chassidic leader of great spiritual statue. Since he left town only rarely, some of his talmidim were appointed to travel to the surrounding towns and communities in order to spread the rebbe’s torah. One of these disciples was a chassid, who was an exceptionally great speaker. Whenever he came to a town, people would gather around him immediately, to listen to the rebbe’s teachings. And he would convey them so brilliantly and with so much passion, as if they were his own ideas. Soon, people began to view him as big talmid chacham, a genius of Torah and chassidut.

One day, the chassid came back to Liubavich and requested to speak to the rebbe in private. As he came in to the rebbe’s chambers, the man looked very distressed. He said: “Rebbe, all the time I travel through this country and spread your words. But recently people started to view me as a brilliant teacher and I have begun to enjoy the honor they give me. I am beginning to view myself as important, even though we both know that really I am no more than a messenger of your words. Tell me rebbe, how can I overcome these feelings and become the humble man that I am supposed to be?”

The rebbe thought for a while, then looked the chassid straight in the eye and said: “Be an onion and continue to teach chassidut!” The chassid understood and continued to spread the rebbe’s torah until the end of his life.

As every good chassidic story, the rebbe’s advice leaves us perplexed and uncomfortable. What does it mean, to be an onion? Should the man stop washing himself in order to start smelling, so other people would not honor him anymore? This sounds hardly like great advice.

The rabbi at the Farbrengen suggested a different interpretation:

The chassid was bothered by how full of himself he had become. He was troubled by the thought that he was appearing to others and himself as something he really wasn’t. He felt like he was pretending to be like the rebbe and that the mask he was wearing was about to conceal his true self – and even fool himself into believing it.

Now, continued the rabbi, if we look at an onion, we see a full, round fruit. But if we start peeling it we are left just with another layer. And if we continue peeling away, there seems to be always another deeper layer. Layers within layers – this is the essence of the onion.

He went on: Each one of us wears many masks on many layers. More often than not we pretend to be someone that we are not, say things we do not mean and act in ways that we regret. But, he said, not all pretenses are equal. Lying to your spouse about having an affair is obviously a terrible betrayal. But if you come home after a long day of work, tired and exhausted and your children demand you to play with them, hug them and give them attention, should you decline because you don’t feel like it or pretend to be patient and relate to your children with kindness and love?

One difference between these two types of dishonesty is that one is purely selfish while the other one is considered selfless. But this is not all. The selfless act of pretending to be caring and loving even though you are not in the mood, is really not denying your self, but acknowledging that there are different and conflicting selves within you. Freud categorizes them in “id”, “ego” and “super-ego”, but this is by no means a complete picture. Each of us is an ensemble of personas that we develop over our lifetimes. Some live in harmony, some are conflicted. Some we try to suppress, others we aspire to become. Some we are aware of, others are hidden deep within our sub-consciousness and are mostly out of our control.

It it is one of the fundamental aspects of Purim, to acknowledge our own multifacetedness. To realize that we, our friends, family and all human beings are not to be taken on face value, but that we are complex beings, each one consisting of layers upon layers of masks and personalities. On Purim, we are supposed to wear masks, to dress up, to get drunk “עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי” – until we cannot discern anymore between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai”. I understand this to mean that we need to break through our simple preconceptions of “cursed” and “blessed” and realize on a deeper level that the world, more often than not, is “ונהפוך הוא” – an “upside-down” place, that defies over-simplistic worldviews.

On Purim we get the opportunity to be in a “what if” kind of world. We get to experiment with alternative versions of ourselves. Nowhere is this more apparent as in Megillat Esther. Each and every major character in this book, pretends to be someone else. Mordechai pretends to be an important statesman in Ahashverosh’s court, even though he is a leader of the exiled Jewish community and longs for their redemption from an oppressive regime. Queen Esther (whose name means “hidden”) is really the Jewish girl Hadassa. According to the tradition, the mighty king Ahashverosh is really an usurper who married the daughter of a Babylonian (not persian) king. Vashti, who actually does have a valid claim to the throne gets herself killed for not wanting to play the game of thrones in an upside-down world. Haman believes himself to be closest to the throne, just before he discovers that he is about to get hanged on the very same tree that he prepared for Mordechai. This is a book full of deceit, intrigue and irony.

But the most pretending character of all is G-D himself, who claims to be present in this world, but hides himself so well, that he is not mentioned in the entire book of Esther even once. The fate of 127 Jewish communities of is sealed by the casting of the lot, the פור – completely at random, while G-D makes himself completely absent.

For me personally, this may be one of the deepest aspects of Purim. When I consider the arguments of modern atheists about the improbability of G-D’s existence I must admit, that they sound quite convincing to me. On a rational basis I would be hard-pressed to find any valid counter arguments to their claims. But if on Purim G-D himself can put on a mask and pretend not to be present, then – עד דלא ידע – I too can put on a mask and pretend that he is.

For one day, let’s all be onions!

Purim Sameach