Back to Stories & Articles

The Back of the Bus

One of the great things about working with children is that I am constantly re-learning to see the world not as the big moments I plan for, but as a series of little things that make memories. Take, for example, last weekend’s 7th grade trip to Boston. When we asked the kids to reflect on what they loved about the trip, some of them said things like our Friday night tisch, or Havdalah services on the roof of our hotel. But by far the most common answer had to do with the time we spent on the bus, when the kids hung out in the back and gabbed. As we become adults and gain more autonomy over our lives, we begin to focus on the “big things”: the times we plan and design for a meaningful experience. What these kids teach us is that what’s happening at the back of the bus is also special, and even sacred.

This Shabbat, we enter Purim by reading the story of when the nation of Amalek attacked the Israelites:

זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃ אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כׇּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחֲרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים׃

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, they surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 

According to the rabbis, Haman, the villain of Purim, is descended from the nation of Amalek. Therefore, by wiping out Amalek, we’re expanding the scope of wiping out Haman.

Were it not for the connection to Purim, I wonder if the story of Amalek would continue to be so well known. The idea of a nation that attacks from behind, targeting the weakest Israelites, is abhorrent. But the reality is that the Torah, and Jewish history at large, is redolent with stories that take up more narrative space. Purim itself is a great example: we have an entire holiday, and an entire book of the Tanakh, dedicated to telling the story of one man who tried to attack the Jews.

Perhaps the reason we remember the story of Amalek alongside the story of Haman is because they teach us two different lessons.

One has become a common Jewish quip: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” In other words, “The Jewish Story” is that we turn our suffering into celebration. The way we make festivals out of moments that could have been tragedies is an essential part of the fabric of Jewish identity.

Psychiatrist Vamik Volkan explains that this is the nature of the intergenerational transmission of trauma: the group coalesces around telling the story of a “chosen trauma,” a single story that is retold enough to become a common story. Sometimes the “chosen trauma” is not even a single historical event, but rather a sense of persecution: the way the story of Purim, a minor holiday on its own, comes to stand for the paradigmatic Jewish experience. The chosen traumas become like embroidery or even part of the fabric of a “tent” which shelters and creates psychological boundaries between group members and others. Every year, as we retell the story of the Megillah, we enforce a group identity in which we see ourselves as brave like Esther, and capable of surviving existential threats like we did in Persia.

I think the story of Amalek is actually a distinct patch from Purim, and one that is part of the tent fabric precisely because it is such a brief moment among many. When we remember what Amalek did, we remember that we survive even in the moments we didn’t anticipate a threat. The story of Purim unfolds across many months, with many opportunities for individuals and the Jewish community to brainstorm responses and solutions. Amalek attacked by surprise when the Israelites were just walking; they had to go into battle by literally turning around to defend the people behind them.

Both the Purim story and the command to remember Amalek remind us that we are a people who know how to survive, and who can take even the moments of fear and turn them topsy-turvy. Taken together, I read them as a reminder that identity can be formed when you intend it, and when you’re just riding in the back of the bus. May your Purim be filled with moments of delight, and may you find those delights woven into your own Jewish story.

Shabbat Shalom,