On Purim morning in 1994, “Baruch” [“Blessed”] Goldstein, an American-born Israeli Jew who lived in an Israeli settlement near the Palestinian city of Hebron — part of the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian lands on the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem — took a machine gun into the mosque where Muslims were prostrate in prayer at the Tomb of Abraham. He murdered 29 Muslims in the place revered by both Jews and Muslims as the burial-site of the forefather of both Judaism and Islam, Jews and Arabs. Now we are 20 years later. What have we learned?
A spring morning in 1994. I had just awakened from a pleasant sleep after celebrating the raucous, rowdy, hilarious, spring-fever Purim festival the night before. Purim is intertwined with the Scroll of Esther, in which a pompous king and a wicked prime minister are ultimately outwitted by a wise Jewish courtier and a courageous Jewish queen.
At one level, the story is about a genocidal threat aimed at the Jews. By echoing an earlier genocidal threat from the tribe of Amalek, the story turns the danger into an archetype. To this threat the Jews respond with diplomatic wisdom and, ultimately, a delicious revenge.
At another level, the story is a joke: What you intend to do to me, that’s what happens to you. So, the wicked Haman would hang the Jews? He ends up swinging from his own gallows. So, the pompous king refuses to take orders from a woman? He ends by doing exactly what his Queen tells him to do.
When I say the Scroll of Esther and the Purim festival are “intertwined,” I am choosing my words with care. In the official version of Jewish history and ritual, the story of Queen Esther led to the celebration of Purim. Today, most scholars think it went the other way: A ribald festival of early spring was justified by a jokey novelet: the Scroll of Esther. All agree that the two are intertwined.
From the easy laughter of a Purim evening —reading the Scroll of Esther with its scathing humor aimed at kings and ministers; rattling my noisemaker at every mention of the name of wicked “Haman”; joining in the bawdy plays called “Purimspiels” that poked fun at rabbis, Torah, Jews, at God’s Own Self for choosing to be absent from this book — from all this, I woke to hear the radio:
Some religious Jew named “Baruch” (“Blessed”) had walked with a machine gun into the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the Tomb of Abraham and Sarah, and there had murdered 29 of his cousins, the children of Abraham’s other family, who were praying prostrate on their faces.
For the sake of God.
Yes, for God he killed them, for the God to whom they were at the very same moment praying. Killed them because it was Purim, the moment when we are to remember to blot out the name of Amalek, the archetypal murderer who had assaulted us from the rear, killed us when we were helpless.
He turned his gun into a midrash.
The Talmud says that on Purim, we are to get just drunk enough to not know the difference between “Blessed Mordechai” and “Cursed Haman.” Between Baruch, Blessed,” and Aror, “Cursed.” For Purim is the day of inversions, inside-outs, of turning the world upside-down. Hilarity and grotesquerie.
This man had become so drunk on blood that he could no longer tell the difference in his own identity between Baruch, Blessed, and Aror, Cursed; between becoming the murderer Haman and becoming the healer Mordechai.
And he had made his gun into a midrash. A brilliant midrash.
I lay in bed, drowning out this new name of Amalek as it came pouring from the radio, saying, shouting, screaming, wailing, “No no no no no no No.”
Twenty-five years of joyful prayer and midrash, shattered with one gun and thirty lives. Twenty-five years of hope and anger, grief and loneliness, rolling the spiral of the Scroll, walking the spiral of the festivals, learning the Hebrew puns that point the path to Torah meaning.
No no no no no no No
The Black Hole of Torah, sucking in all light, all meaning.
At last I got out of bed. I called my children, my friends, my teachers, my students. We began to weave a counter-midrash, a weave of tears and healing, not of blood and bullets. For it to have power may take years, decades, centuries in which it grows from seed to sprout to Tree of Life.
The Amalek Within
But we began. On the very day of Bloody Purim, we began. We said to each other, We will have to understand “Amalek,” the archetype of genocidal hatred, in a new way. For the Purim story does not stand alone. Jewish tradition connects it with a story from the Exodus and Wilderness: A nation named Amalek attacked the Jews from the rear, killing the women and children who had been placed there for safety. The Torah teaches that Jews must forever remember to blot out the memory of Amalek. Haman. Torquemada. Hitler. They are all Amalek.
Of course, after the Nazi Holocaust — the Holocaust from which no Esther saved the Jews — this archetypal myth of disaster bit home with intense cruelty and fear. Suddenly, Jews for whom the Amalek story had become somewhat quiescent, became attuned to it.
And then came the long, complex, and deadly struggle between the national movements and hopes of the Jewish and the Palestinian peoples. In that struggle, some Palestinians became terrorists. Some Palestinians called publicly for the State of Israel to be shattered. So for some Jews, all Palestinians become Amalek. We must “blot out” their memory.
What does it mean to blot out their memory? To Baruch/Aror Goldstein, it meant murder. He had guns and police protection; he had power. He could make the fantasy come true.
But “blotting out the memory of Amalek” must come to mean something other than murder. The key to a deeper spiritual understanding is to see that a spark of Amalek may arise not only in outsiders and enemies, but also in ourselves.
Within days of the Purim massacre, two women who had been deeply engaged in the struggle to create a feminist Judaism