Shabbat Zachor–Remembering Amalek and Moving Onto Purim

“Who can retell the things that befell us,
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Came to our aid.”

Oh wait, that is a Chanukah song. Try this one:

“Oh, once there was a wicked, wicked man 
And Hamen was his name sir, 
He would have murdered all the Jews, 
Though they were not to blame sir. He lied and lied about the Jews, though they were not to blame sir. 
Oh today, we’ll merry, merry be 
Oh today, we’ll merry, merry be 
Oh today, we’ll merry, merry be 
And nosh some hamentaschen”

It raises the question. What do we teach our children. Years ago I remember a story on NPR that talked about music that families would teach children in Bosnia. It instilled hate for generations, for over 500 years. I remember thinking, “We Jews do that too—and for a lot longer than 500 years!”

And no, I didn’t start with two songs because we are going to do the Great Latke-Hamantaschen debate that they do at places like MIT and University of Chicago. We all know this one….”They tried to kill us. We survived. Lets eat!” So tonight we will eat. Hamantaschen—Haman’s hat, pocket or ears. And we will read the whole megillah later but before we get there, this is Shabbat Zachor. The Sabbath of Remembrance.  We are commanded in today’s Torah portion to “Remember not to forget.”

We Jews are good at remembering. We remember the creation and the exodus from Egypt each time we make “Kiddush” on Friday night, when we sanctify time and set it apart for Shabbat. We remember our loved ones with Yizkor, a memorial service (same root as Shabbat Zachor) or on their yearly yahrzeit.  Our holidays are tied to remembering. None more so than Purim.

So what do we remember today? What is so important that we need to be commanded to remember not to forget? The Amalekites. What do we know about the Amalekites? They attacked the Israelites leaving Egypt, the rear flank. The part was weary, hungry, thirsty.

Here is how Exodus describes it: “Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord is my banner, saying, “A hand upon the throne of the Lord Jacob! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:8-16)

From this verse we learn to blot out Haman’s name, considered a descendent of Amalek. That’s why we make so much noise on Purim.

And here is how it is described in today’s portion: “Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth out of Egypt. How he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of you and all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to posses it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” Deuteronomy 25:17-19

When Saul was King there was a war with the Amalekites. Saul was told by Samuel that he needed to completely eradicate the Amalekites and when he didn’t he lost his kingship. That is the haftarah we are reading today.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Sam. 15:2-3).

So my next question. Are there sins that cannot be forgiven? What are they? Deuternonomy 5:9-10 and Exodus 34:7 seem to say that there are some sins that God has a hard time with, especially those when the sin involves hating God. Then God will visit that sin of parents on the third and fourth generations. God wasn’t happy with the sin of the Golden Calf. No that is not strong enough. God was downright angry! We are even told that even in the tenth generation Israelites could not welcome a Moabite or an Amorite because they did not offer food or water to the Israelites when they were fleeing Egypt. Pretty harsh language.

But completely destroy an entire people? The Amalekites? The men, women and children? Even the sheep? That’s genocide. I think I am like Saul. I must have heard this wrong. Why the children? Why the sheep?

Many Jews see an Amalek in every generation. Haman, Hitler, today I read language about Iran, the Palestinians. To be clear. Iran is a real threat, the recent arms shipment that was intercepted proves that. To be clear, the rockets that fell from Gaza into southern Israel this week—over 80 of them—proves that some Palestinians are real threats. But in my mind, let’s underscore, SOME, maybe. Certainly not ALL.

Chabad has an interesting take on this. Even though the name Amalek “refers to a real nation, it also describes a character trait within ourselves. Just as Amalek stood in direct opposition to the Jewish people, the trait symbolized by Amalek defies the very foundations of our divine service.” Chabad continues that “Amalek represents the cold rationality which makes us question everything we do or experience.” Boy, we know that I do that. All the time.  They point out that there is a numerical equivalence between the word Amalek and the word safek, Hebrew for doubt. “Amalek causes doubt and hesitation which cools the ardor of our divine service.” An interesting thought when we remember that the Book of Esther is one of two books that doesn’t even mention God!

There is a dark side to Purim. How many people did the Jews kill defending themselves since Ashaverous’s decree could not be rescinded? 75,000. That is a lot of people. Innocent or maybe not so innocent. If these were residents of the 127 provinces from Ethiopia to India under Persian rule who were willing to carry out Haman’s order, doesn’t it show that anti-semitism is everywhere? Even back then? Just like the song says?

Does anyone remember what happened 20 years ago this weekend, on Purim? In Israel? Does anyone remember the name Baruch Goldstein? Today is the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Hebron Massacre. When Baruch Goldstein walked into a mosque, the Cave of Patriarchs, a holy site we share with the Muslims and murdered 29 Palestinians. Many Jews feel a “twinge of embarrassment.” Jews don’t do that. They don’t murder 29 people in cold blood. It is not living up to the ideal of a “light to the nations”. But where did the fear come from that was so strong Baruch Goldstein felt he had no choice? What about the assignation of Yitzhak Rabin? Why is peace so scary? So for me, quoting the Forward this week, “But a mere twinge of embarrassment is too easy.” Goldstein’s grave has become a shrine for a whole community of Israelis. I am not comfortable when the oppressed, the survivors of unspeakable tragedy and trauma become the oppressors. That’s why I am a proud member of Rabbis for Human Rights, T’ruah.

Last year I was moved by Yossi Klein HaLevi who talked about two kinds of Jews. Passover Jews and Purim Jews. I even used it in the letter that went out with the yellow candles for Yom HaShoah that the Men’s Club sends out. “Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: Don’t be brutal. The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: Don’t be naive. The first command is the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim, commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek. “Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat. Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.”

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach—who I rarely quote, or even sing his songs for other justice reasons, told a story that the Forward picked up on. The Chasidic master Zvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841) stopped his Purim festivities and said, “Saddle the horses and get the carriages, it is time to blot out Amalek.” His Hasidim were petrified. “What could the master mean?” Being obedient disciples, they got in their carriages and followed their rebbe. He rode into town to a local inn where the Polish peasants (the Amalekites of his day?) were engaged in their own drunken bash. The rebbe and his disciples entered the inn. When the peasants saw them, they stopped dancing. The music stopped. Everyone circled around the rebbe and the Jews as they walked to the center of the dance floor. The room was silent. The rebbe looked at one of the peasants and put out his hand with his palm to the ceiling. Silence. The peasants looked at one another. Suddenly one of them stepped forward and took the rebbe’s hand. They slowly started dancing. The musicians began playing. In a matter of minutes, all the Hasidim and peasants were dancing furiously with one another.

Purim is important. Lord Rabbi Sacks points out that out in his weekly message. He describes it as the most boisterous of holidays. (In fact it is Simon’s least favorite!) But Sacks thinks that it is odd, for many of the reasons that have bothered me (and maybe Simon!) He asks, “Why such exhilaration at merely surviving a tragedy that was only narrowly averted? Relief, I can understand. But to turn the day into a carnival? Just because we’re still here to tell the story?

He answers, “Slowly, though, I began to understand how much pain there has been in Jewish history, how many massacres and pogroms throughout the ages. Jews had to learn how to live with the past without being traumatised by it. So they turned the day when they faced and then escaped the greatest danger of all into a festival of unconfined joy, a day of dressing up and drinking a bit too much, to exorcise the fear, live through it and beyond it, and then come back to life, unhaunted by the ghosts of memory.

Purim is the Jewish answer to one of the great questions of history: how do you live with the past without being held captive by the past?”

For all of us, this becomes the central question. How do we live with the past without being held captive by it? How do we not only survive—but thrive? How do we make meaning out of our lives? How do we take our own traumas and learn to continue, and then to celebrate life unabashedly. The Forward asks, “You want to blot out Amalek? Go to the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Or any mosque. Reach out your hand. And dance. That is how you blot out Amalek. Crazy? Ask Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov. That is what it means to take Purim seriously after 1994.”

So for me, tonight, I will be celebrating. I have turned Purim into a “really big show”, a big top this year. Maybe the greatest show on earth. We will have fun—no doubt—in the service of God, dare I say. We will dance, we will sing, we will be silly, we might have just a drop too much to drink. We will blot out Haman’s name. And then we will do it all over again in the morning, when we will teach our children how to have fun. Along the way and we will make memories. We will remember not to forgot. Come celebrate life with us.