Shabbat Zachor 2022: The Danger of Myth

Looking at the various propaganda pieces that have been dispersed around the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, the one I see repeated the most is Putin’s claim to be de-Nazifying Ukraine. There is something very human and very powerful about the way he is manipulating reality with this obfuscation. All of us live in the shadow of World War II. Many grew up with real fear of nuclear war - some here may even have lived through the very real danger of the Nazis during World War II as well. As time has passed, though, the stark reality of these horrific historical events have become plot devices throughout popular media: nuclear bombs needing to be defused by the heroic protagonist; Nazis with advanced technology secretly running contemporary governments that must be overthrown by superheroes. The move from historical reality to hyperbolized fiction has changed these concrete human horrors into abstract myths for many. This move is a double edged sword, making sure the horrors are not forgotten in the mists of history, but also making them feel as though they are somehow beyond us, and therefore simultaneously scarier and less real, like something in the realm of vampires and werewolves.

The move towards abstraction, towards legend, or myth, for each of these real phenomena have left us vulnerable to the fears they evoke. Fear of this kind leads us to irrationality, to an inability to manage our emotions, and often to shutting down, and disassociation, thinking the best course of action is to turn away, avoid, and not face the very real suffering and realities on the ground hidden behind the vainglorious rhetoric of an authoritarian tyrant. And, by the same token, we must avoid evoking these same types of fears when discussing Putin and Russia’s aggression by turning them back on him - he is not a member of the Third Reich, either, but his own form of contemporary despot. Evoking these real historical phenomena as boogiemen has the capacity to keep us from seeing real danger in front of us, and therefore from addressing it. 

We Jews have our own boogieman - Amalek. This week is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim where we recall the commandment to never forget to blot out the memory of Amalek, a people who ruthlessly attacked the Israelites from behind when they were fleeing Egypt. Our Midrash also tells us that Amalek’s attack was not simply about killing the Israelites, but focused on cutting off the connection between God and the Israelites.

Later in the Tanakh, King Saul is tasked with wiping out the Amalekites once and for all, not only the warriors, but everyone, and all of their property. His failure to do so is one of the reasons he is later viewed as a failed king. Nowadays, we think of what Saul was commanded to do as genocide, an unspeakable crime against the entirety of humanity. 

On Purim 1994, a fundamentalist American Jewish immigrant to the settlements in the West Bank named Baruch Goldstein used this very logic to massacre a room full of Palestinians in prayer, referring to them as both Amalek and Nazis. By combining our own Jewish boogieman with Nazis, and applying that mythical evil to living, breathing human beings, he acted on an internal logic that allowed him to do the unspeakable. By abstracting the concept of Nazis, and using the boogieman of Amalek, he was able to disassociate from the reality in front of him, and commit a heinous, horrific crime.

We must learn from this story to always be wary of the application of lofty rhetoric of metaphysical evil to human beings. Certainly nuclear weapons, Nazis, and Russian imperial supremacists still exist today, and ought to be viewed as the real threats they are, but we must not let them be used as abstracted sources of fear to bring out our own worst impulses. In fact, our tradition teaches that those worst impulses are the true Amalek. 

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, a groundbreaking postmodern Orthodox thinker, wrote that the husk of Amalek that resides within us is “a conception of being that rules out all metaphysics and designates reality as ‘under the sun.’What he means by this is that Amalek is found in the human impulse to believe that our own understandings of the world around us are all that exist; to forget that, in fact, we have a very limited point of view colored by our emotional state at any given moment; to believe that the way in which we engage in the world around us is the whole breadth and depth of possibility for our world. Embodying Amalek is to forget that our emotions are subject to change, and that the ultimate reality is metaphysically beyond our grasp in its most complete expression. To forget that is to allow Amalek in, to create space for a level of abstraction that can lead to a hatred that is purely destructive. It can lead us to become the monsters we fear. 

Rather than cast Putin and the Russian government as Nazis, or Amalek, which would be, in fact, using the same tactical line as Putin himself, let us instead cast them as who and what they are by defeating the Amalek within ourselves, and fight them as they are, rather than as outsized mythologized versions of themselves. We need not evoke overarching evils of the past to address evils of the present, and in fact it clouds our vision and unseats our judgment. In this often chaotic, scary, and unpredictable world, it is on us to never forget to remember that Amalek abounds, not primarily in the world around us, but as an impulse within us. We can not forget the humanity of those we see as enemies; can not allow ourselves to become the destructive force we seek to overcome. We must, as the Torah tells us, work to blot out Amalek, this impulse within us to allow our fears to corrupt us.

Let us instead see Putin and the Russian government, as they are today- human beings manifesting a deep human desire for control, dominance, and power over others at any cost. That is an enemy worth confronting; that is an enemy we can and must defeat. Let us remember to never forget to blot out our impulse to over mythologize that which we must confront head on, be it for the good or for the bad - the pure good hero, and the pure evil villain: both are projections that cloud our ability to see. Let us remember that the fears and emotions that can lead us to catastrophize or mythologize contemporary realities are an impulse that allows those realities to defeat us from within, and leads us away from the higher truths of our experience in the world. Let us use the ancient wisdom of our tradition to provide us clarity and consistency to work together to face and fight the realities of human impulses for dominance, greed, and violence, now and always. Shabbat shalom.