In Sunday school we tend to emphasize the inspiring parts of the Bible. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God.” (Leviticus 19:18; Micah 6:8)
But what about the more difficult passages? What about the murdering and pillaging and sexual perversity? As we begin the Jewish holiday of Purim, we confront an immensely challenging text.
A People to Destroy
In the Book of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Israelites are commanded to “blot out the name of Amalekites,” to utterly destroy them. (Deuteronomy 25) The Amalakites were a nation who attacked the Israelites during their journey through the Sinai wilderness.
The Book of Esther, which we read on Purim, identifies the arch-villain Haman as a descendant of the tribe of Amalek. Thus, at the end of the book, Haman and his entire family are hung from the gallows.
It is not a comforting way to end a book of Bible.
When Hatred is the Only Option
It also raises difficult questions. Why does the Bible command us to destroy another people? Is it ever right to utterly hate another person or group?
The Jewish sages give us a profound answer. It is permissible to hate someone when they have placed themselves outside the boundaries of basic morality.
Yet, we need to be circumspect, examining our feelings carefully and constructively. As Rabbi Norman Lamm put it,
We reserve our actual, living hatred for the unusually hateful individuals who commit historic crimes and whose malice is monstrous and premeditated. Anti-Semites who wish to destroy all the Jewish people; monsters who seek sadistically to wipe out whole populations–such people remain deserving, on purely moral grounds, of actual contempt and hatred.
The Psychological Truth of Hatred
Later Jewish thinkers also saw the psychological value in releasing our hatred on symbols of evil. We are not angels. We possess drives and feelings that can do great damage if used improperly.
Part of the wisdom of faith is directing our energies so as to improve the world rather than destroy it.
In Jewish tradition Amalek becomes the symbol of evil. Since the character of Haman is descended from Amalek, we boo and hiss whenever his name is mentioned in the synagogue. This noise serves to fulfill the commandment to “blot out” the name of Amalek.
Thus, what we seem to strange to someone visiting a synagogue on Purim is actually a symbolic expression of the hatred of evil and wickedness.
As Rabbi Lamm puts it again, “By restricting our hatred to evil and those who personify it and symbolize by chanting the commandment to obliterate Amalek and by hissing and booing at the mention of Haman’s name, we learn to hate without hurt.”
In other words, professing hatred of Amalek and blotting out his name is a cathartic exercise, releasing our energies in a harmless way while reminding ourselves that evil can and does exist in the world.