February 22, 2013 admin

Do no harm

If only we could pack away humanity’s hurts and harms! ‘Do no harm’, runs one of the great, but simple, mottos associated with Buddhism. More than once, a leading Jewish philanthropist said to me, ‘Before I enter any project I ask: “Will we end up unintentionally doing more harm than good? I don’t get involved until I’m reassured on this question.
Hurt and harm are difficult to undo. At Purim we recall that Haman is a descendant of Agag, the royal line of the Amalekites. The Torah is blunt about the conduct of the Amalekite people; they attack the Children of Israel from behind on their way out of Egypt, killing the old and the weak who cannot keep up. ‘They don’t fear God’, the Torah says, meaning that they fail to abide by that ancient standard of morality through which individuals and nations reassure one another that they don’t murder or steal, but respect the person of the stranger and the integrity of family bonds. This code the Amalekites fail to uphold.
Where does such hatred come from? Maybe there is no better description that the phrase A. C. Bradley coined in reference to Shakespeare’s Iago, the villain who by his cunning drives the once noble Othello to murder the wife he apparently still loves: ‘motiveless malignancy’. But the Midrash offers another story. Amalek, the original ancestor and father of the people, is the grandson of Esau. He spends much time with his ageing grandfather who, of course, tells him the story of his life, including how his twin brother Jacob cheated him of his birthright as the firstborn. ‘I couldn’t take revenge’, he explains, ‘I didn’t want to hurt my dear father Isaac any more than he had been already. But you, grandson, you must exact that long-delayed vengeance for me’.
History slowly carries old grudges forward to their untimely fruition. The Midrash also notes that the price of Esau’s great cry when he heard that his special blessing had been stolen by Jacob was eventually exacted from the latter’s descendants. When was this? Centuries later, as, upon hearing of Haman’s plan to destroy all the Jewish People, Mordechai put on sackcloth and uttered a great and bitter cry.
The Megillah, the story of Purim, presents a world of realpolitik. A brilliant study of the interplay of vengeance, power and intelligence, it is all too similar, in motive and counter-motive, if not in style, to the world in which we actually live. But it is not the kind of world we want to bequeath to our children. To them we would like to give a world of forbearing, forgiveness and peace.
Shabbat Zachor, the ‘Sabbath of Remembering’, always immediately precedes Purim. It carries a troubling and seemingly contradictory double-commandment: first ‘Remember what Amalek did,’ and then, ‘Blot out the memory of Amalek’. Surely we can do either the former, or the latter, but not both.
Or perhaps the double instruction is intended to teach us that we must be clear-sighted and realistic about the world we live in, otherwise we are fools. Yet in studying and defending ourselves against the hurts and grudges which history seems to transmit so unremittingly from generation to generation our aim must be not to perpetuate but to try to heal them. We must be aware of them precisely so that we can struggle to overcome them and, in seeking to promote reconciliation, leave behind us the same message as Esther and Mordechai when they wrote to all the peoples of Persia ‘words both of truth and peace’.

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