By Cantor Ken Richmond
After a Purim puppet show for the toddlers in our temple’s nursery school, the rabbi and I asked the kids what they were planning to dress up as for Purim. One of the boys raised his hand and answered “Darth Vader.” “Oh, you’re going to be a bad guy!” exclaimed the rabbi. The boy answered assuredly, “No, he’s a good guy.”
I considered afterwards whether this was a case of “alternative facts” or some toddler confusion, or whether there was a lesson I could learn from this exchange. Perhaps the boy was dramatizing the idea of “v’nahafoch hu”, the upside-down, topsy-turvy craziness of Purim that inspires some people to stand on their heads? Maybe he was hearkening back to Anakin Skywalker’s years as a hero, or Darth Vader’s final moments, when (spoiler alert) he does teshuva (repents) and saves the day? Or perchance he was unknowingly raising the idea that there is a spark of good in everyone, and that almost everyone has the possibility of redemption?
As often happens, this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh―detailing the vestments to be worn by Aaron the High Priest and his descendants―falls on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim. It makes sense to read of the High Priest’s garments as we are preparing to dress up for Purim. Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us that Aaron’s apparel, like other uniforms, “simultaneously invests the wearer with special authority and diminishes the person’s personal authority.” In Purim terms, the costume imbues us with the role.
On Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat on which we are exhorted to “remember”), we also read a short passage from Deuteronomy that recounts how the people of Amalek fell upon us in the wilderness―preying on the old and the young, the sick and the vulnerable―and exhorts us to eradicate them, to blot out their name or their memory. The rabbis say that there is no people identifiable as Amalek in today’s world, but that doesn’t stop us (for better or for worse) from characterizing modern evils as Amalek. My most vivid Shabbat Zachor memory is of sitting uncomfortably during a sermon at a synagogue in Jerusalem during the 2001 Intifada, in which the rabbi called all Arabs, not just terrorists and their supporters, Amalek.
In our world today, what and who qualifies as the embodiment of evil? Those responsible for desecrating Jewish cemeteries, threatening schools, and shooting synagogue windows? Those burning down mosques and killing people who look Middle Eastern? Hamas, Al Qaeda, or ISIS, in the news again for inflicting medieval horrors? Which actions rise to the level of Amalek―and when are the perpetrators still capable of repentance?
An answer may lie in a word that only appears three times in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible): “v’nishma,” which translates either as “and it shall be heard” or “and we shall hear.” This word appears in the book of Esther, which we read on Purim: “The king’s decree will be heard” (Esther 1:20).” It occurs after the giving of the Ten Commandments, “when the people of Israel accept the commandments, saying, “na’aseh v’nishma―we will do, and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7). And finally, the word surfaces in this week’s portion: “Its sound will be heard when he comes into the holy place” (Exodus 28:35), referring to the sound of the bells on Aaron’s robes.
Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Schwadron (1835-1911) says that the three verses represent three kinds of teshuva, or repentance. The verse from Esther shows that we can be inspired to repent out of fear, as through the danger of pogroms and genocide threatened by Haman. The verse from Mount Sinai shows that we can be Divinely inspired to repent; if the first category represents fear, the second exemplifies love. And the verse from this week’s portion that says, “its sound—kolo―will be heard,” can also be translated to mean “his voice will be heard,” which Rabbi Schwadron understands as referring to one’s own voice. He says that this third kind of repentance is brought about by one’s own realization of the need to repent, without any outside factor.
In each of these verses, the act of listening is connected to noticing and seizing the opportunity for teshuva, whether one is inspired by fear, by love, or by soul-searching. The capability of empathetic listening may be a sign that one has not gone over fully to the “dark side.”
This week includes the ninth of Adar, a date when―according to rabbinic tradition―the schools of the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai, normally famous for having “arguments for the sake of heaven,” turned to violence. The Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution in Jerusalem urges us at this time of year to keep our conflicts constructive. One idea they recommend, following Rabbi Shimon Ben Zemach Doran of 14th-century Algeria (who commented on the positive attributes of Hillel and Shammai’s debates), is to be willing to listen to another side of an argument, and open to admitting you might be wrong when evidence presents itself. That is no small task in today’s polarized environment.
Our tradition includes commentators who argue that the commandment to blot out Amalek means we should focus on our external enemies, and others who think that we should focus on rooting out those aspects of ourselves that remind us of Amalek. Becoming a better listener who practices constructive conflict may not do much against ISIS and other external dangers, but it can have a powerful impact on our interpersonal relationships, and perhaps a ripple effect beyond that realm.
As we prepare for Purim this week, part of the fun in dressing up in costume is the opportunity to experiment with other roles and personas, including villains we rightly feel too constrained to play in our day-to-day life. This exercise can help us see things from a fresh perspective as we get in touch with our inner heroes and scoundrels. As the little Darth Vader reminded me, many miscreants have a spark of goodness in them, and if they can listen to others and be heard, they may have the possibility of repentance and redemption.
May this Purim season be one of constructive conflict, compassionate listening, fresh perspectives, and the diminishing of both the external Amaleks of this world and those aspects of Amalek within us.
Ken Richmond has been the Cantor and Family Educator of Temple Israel of Natick since 2006, and serves as adjunct faculty at Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music. He graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s cantorial school in 2004 as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and was a member of the Mahzor Committee for the Lev Shalem Mahzor. He plays in Fish Street Klezmer & the Klezmaniacs with his wife, Rabbi Shira Shazeer (HCRS ‘10).