Purim 5779: Amalek and the Tolerance of Uncertainty

by Miri Korbman

            The storyline is familiar to us: Haman, a “wicked, wicked man,” sought to destroy the Jewish people, and through a series of miracles-masquerading-as-happenstance, his plans were foiled. The story thankfully culminates in the antagonist strung up on his own gallows, the Jewish people celebrating in tremendous joy and relief, and children and adults alike running around in costumes and masks – wait, what? Since when do our stories of national resilience end in dress-up parties??

 

            Perhaps we are so accustomed to the Purim story that these integral features of the day pass our careful inspection without much questioning. In order to gain fully from the power and purpose of the holiday, however, we must employ that quintessentially Jewish method of learning, and begin to question. Why is this holiday celebrated through costumes and masks? Why did the miraculous salvation of the Jews need to come about through hidden and at first indiscernible means? In similarly Jewish fashion, we will seek to answer these questions through another question: Who was Haman, and why was he so intent on our annihilation?

 

            The Gemara in Chullin 139b:11 asks, “Haman Min HaTorah Minayin?” Where do we find a reference to Haman in the Torah? The answer given is that in the story of the original sin, after Adam and Chava eat from the Eitz HaDaas Tov V’Ra, Hashem approaches Adam and asks, Did you eat from the tree, the very tree from which I commanded you not to eat? The verse in Breishis 3:11 reads, “HaMin Ha’Etz HaZeh…” or, “[did you eat] from this tree?” The Gemara explains that the word “HaMin,” in Hebrew comprised of the letters Hey, Mem, and Nun, is the same word as Haman, also spelled with those three letters. This, says the Gemara, is a direct reference to Haman in the Torah.

           

            Rav Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin, quoted by Rabbi Akiva Tatz in his book Worldmask, expounds on this Gemara and explains why this particular verse serves as a biblical reference to the villain of the Purim story. Haman was a descendant of Amalek, the nation who, as we read this past Shabbos, attacked the Jewish people in the desert immediately after we left Egypt. What bothered Amalek about the Jews that they felt the need to attack us? The verse describes Amalek’s attack as “asher karcha ba’derech,” “they happened upon you on the way,” because Amalek’s mission is to convince us, to convince the world, that all events are circumstantial happenstance, rather than the specific, purposeful, intentional work of a Supreme Being. We see this mission statement in Amalek’s name, as well, for the Hebrew word “Amalek” shares the same numerical value, or Gematria, as the word “Safek,” Hebrew for “doubt.” Amalek’s goal is to infuse us with doubt in God’s role in our lives, both personally and nationally. The exodus from Egypt clashed horribly with this objective, as the miracles of the plagues and the splitting of the sea could not have left less doubt that there is a Creator, and that He continues to exert control over all the happenings in the universe. Furious, Amalek came and attacked the Jewish people, seeking to undermine this undeniable evidence of God’s existence and Omnipotence.

 

            Fast forward several hundred generations, and Haman, a direct descendant of Amalek, is born, and with him is perpetuated the mission to infuse doubt and remove God from the picture. Haman seeks to destroy us because we represent the antithesis of Amalek, in that we proclaim a certain, strong, and unshakeable faith in God, in His existence, in His power, and in His Oneness. Such beliefs are intolerable to Amalek, and so they seek to rid the world of those who espouse these beliefs – the Jewish people. While we understand why Amalek, and therefore Haman, was so intent on destroying us, we must ask ourselves: why do we have the commandment to remember Amalek and to seek to destroy them? Many nations have attempted to hurt, oppress, or kill us over the years, and yet we have this singular mandate regarding Amalek, specifically. What is so dangerous and harmful about doubt, represented by Amalek?

 

            Doubt and uncertainty are the mechanisms behind anxiety and fear. When we are unsure of the future, or faced with a decision with unknown implications for others, or ourselves, worry begins to fester within us, invasive, uncomfortable. Psychology research indicates that intolerance of uncertainty, the inability to sit with the unknown, is the central component that fosters and maintains anxiety. As a construct, intolerance of uncertainty tries to persuade us to avoid any circumstances, people, situations, or activities that might force us to come face to face with the unknown or unknowable. It is why new people and places make us feel anxious, and why we develop fears of possibilities, of questions without definitive answers; will I get sick if I come in contact with this thing? Will I ever know for sure if this person is my bashert? How can I decide what school to go to/job to accept/ vacation to take if I do not know how it will turn out? Better, we say to ourselves, to avoid needing to be in that uncertain space – I’d rather end the relationship than have to face the discomfort of the unknown, and I’ll consult with 25 friends and mentors before making this decision so I can increase my sense of certainty about it.

 

            On its own, intolerance of uncertainty is not inherently dangerous; it is a natural human tendency, to fear the unknown, and to want to know, to want to be in control. When we fight to know for certain, however, we can never be satisfied, and we must always live in a state of heightened anxiety. Relief from that fear can come through only two means: either we avoid being in a state of doubt altogether, or we learn to tolerate the doubt. Amalek capitalizes on this natural inclination, and tries to redirect it toward God. How can you know for sure, they ask us, whether God truly exists? There is no certain, tangible, visible proof of His Hand in your life! Everything you see as Godly can be boiled down to coincidence, to accidental, or natural, occurrences. You’ll never know for certain, they insist. Amalek is the ever-present whisper, ‘are you absolutely sure?,’ and the pressure to escape the uncertainty, to give up on knowing God, and simply agree with them that He must not exist. On our way out of Egypt, after witnessing miracles that left no trace of doubt in God’s existence and power, Amalek came, wielding its most precious weapon. Let us attack you, they said, and let us renew the doubt, the uncertainty, let us leave the question hanging in the air – God, where are you?

 

            One might think that battling Amalek means getting rid of doubt. As Chazal tell us, there is no happiness like the clarification of doubt. Psychologically, we know this to be true. We constantly daven for clarity; let us feel that we have made the right decisions, let us see how Your plans pan out, Hashem. We seek clarity, certainty, the relief of knowing. Alone, this is not problematic; it is natural. Unfortunately, however, we also know that more often than not, being a God-fearing Jew, being a human, requires existing to some degree in a state of uncertainty; our mission is not to alleviate that discomfort, but to tolerate it, and to remember that even when things appear uncertain or unclear, God is pulling the strings.

 

            Tolerance of uncertainty is the lesson of the Purim story. Throughout the Megillah, one who reads the story with fresh eyes must wonder at the curiousness of the events unfolding. Why would God want Esther, an innocent Jewish girl, to be sentenced to life in the palace of the evil gentile king? Why would God allow for Haman to rise in the ranks and land in the position to act out terrible atrocities against the Jews? From the moment the lot is cast, one might ask, how will all of this resolve? As we read the story, anxiety settles in to its usual place in our gut; the fear and doubt creep in, as Haman and his ancestors would surely want. We sit, on the edge of our seats, waiting for the outcome to be determined. And yet, as the story continues, things become even less clear. Even when Haman’s plot is uncovered, we remain unsure of how things will end for the Jewish people. It is only at the very last moment, in the last few verses, that we can finally breathe a sigh of relief in the outcome of a decade-long story. We laugh, because in our state of anxiety and fear, we come up with all sorts of catastrophic potential outcomes – and when, in that last moment, things fall into place in such an incredible way, we recognize how God hid himself throughout the story, and we laugh because we are surprised, and relieved.

 

            This, then, is why we celebrate by creating even more confusion and uncertainty. We dress up, hiding our true selves from the outside world, leaving others to guess, who could that be, behind the mask? We encourage each other to exercise tolerance of uncertainty, to sit with the discomfort of simply not knowing, to remind ourselves that, as a nation battling the ideology of Amalek, our mission is not to rid ourselves of doubt, but to tolerate it. Faith in God does not always mean knowing with 100% certainty, but choosing to believe, and to engage with God and His Torah, despite the uncertainty or doubt that might try to worm its way into our hearts and minds. The Purim story, with its twists, turns, and unexpected surprises, reminds us that, if we hold out long enough, we at least provide the opportunity for the uncertain to become certain, for the unclear to be clarified, for the unknown to become known.

 

            This Purim, I invite us to rejoice in that singular joy of overcoming the fear of the unknown, not through ridding ourselves of uncertainty, but through embracing it. Perhaps we will be blessed with a meaningful, enjoyable Purim – either way, may we make it freilichen!