Shabbat Zachor: The Joy of Being Prepared

I have a question. How many of you think of yourselves as Passover Jews? (Most of the hands went up.) And how many of you think of yourselves as Purim Jews (some hands but not many).

Originally I had thought that Passover Jews were the ones who liked seders—the preparation, the meal, the family, even though in some families it is hard work which can be a labor of love. I love Passover—but not as much as my husband does who so loves the words that he compiled his own hagaddah. He is not happy unless the seder goes to midnight—and would probably do four if I let him. It is his favorite holiday. Purim Jews, I thought were the ones who enjoy getting silly, letting the kids have a good time, baking hamantaschen and delivering shlach manot baskets. It is the holiday where you can be anything you want.

But that is not quite what this is about.

This is Shabbat Zachor. The Shabbat just before Purim where we remember not to forget what the Amalekites did to the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt. It ties the two holidays together in some ways.

What did the Amalekites do that was so unforgivable? They attacked the rear guard, the most vulnerable amongst us, the women, the children, the elderly. The text actually says those who were tired. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, particularly with the recent bomb threats. Those pictures of empty cribs from JCC day care centers pushed into the parking lots. Those vulnerable children. How dare they terrorize and intimidate those children and those tasked with taking care of them.

King Saul was commanded to kill all the Amalekites and he did not. For this he lost his kingship. In every age, a tyrant rises up against the Jews. Typically we say they are descendants of Amalek. Haman. Hitler. Maybe there is one today. I am usually not comfortable with this language. But this year feels different.

Then I remembered, a few years ago, on Shabbat Zachor, I gave a sermon quoting Yossi Klein Halevi. Yossi is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and he divides the Jewish community into Passover Jews and Purim Jews. (He also is the speaker at the Chicago Board of Rabbis meeting this week on Jewish-Muslim Dialogue and I am excited to hear him in person. But I digress).

I went back to look at my sermon. You can read it here:

A Passover Jew is the one who remembers that we were slaves in Egypt and that we need to welcome the stranger, love the stranger. That’s what I usually tell you. 36 times it tells us this in the Torah, says the Talmud. This means that we need to welcome refugees and asylum seekers. That we need sanctuary cities—and churches and synagogues. This is not new material for me. Or for you since I talk about this frequently. I am a Passover Jew.

Purim Jews are ones who remember not to forget Amalek, and Haman and Hitler. Who plead, don’t be naïve. We need protection. They are out to destroy us. I am not a Purim Jew. I refuse to live in a world where fear dominates. I remember an early class at Hebrew College where the then president, Rabbi David Gordis said if we only teach the Holocaust we should fold up our tents and go home. It is not enough to survive as Jews to prevent Hitler from earning a posthumous victory. Judaism must have an intrinsic meaning of its own.

This year, however, I thought maybe there needed to be one more piece. Maybe it is not an either/or choice. I was looking for balance. There is a danger in being just a Purim Jew. We can go too far. We run the risk of becoming like Baruch Goldstein who heard the message of Purim and the need to defend ourselves and went and shot up a mosque, killing 29 and wounding 125. Passover comes just in time to temper the message of Purim. I want to be a Passover Jew.

But this year, with rising anti-semitism, 148 recent bomb threats, the Chicago Loop Synagogue vandalized and at least three cemeteries with toppled gravestones, maybe we need the message of Purim. We need to not be naive. Maybe we need to be both Purim Jews and Passover Jews at the same time. And that, it turns out was precisely Yossi Klein HaLevy’s point.

“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.

It is critical to understand that. And to understand what we at CKI do to ensure our safety to the best of our ability.

First there is a protocol and procedures committee that has written all sorts of safety protocols—including tornado and fire drill procedures. And a bomb threat protocol. I was relieved to be able to go over it with Peg and other staff. It is the reason we practice.

Second, we have outstanding relationships with our police department and our city government. I was touched that our mayor called me after one of the recent rounds of threats, apologetic that he felt the need to order more patrols—for the synagogue and the cemetery. Those patrols continue and we thank the mayor for being proactive. The police are always responsive to our calls. We have been promised that nothing will happen here. Not on their watch.

Third, the Elgin Human Relations Commission turned out in force at our recent ADL presentation. Many members of the wider community did. It was almost evenly split between members of CKI and the wider community. That brings me hope and courage.

Fourth, the U46 School Administration is committed to making sure that no student gets bullied in U46 for being Jewish. Their mission statement includes as its final plank, “All means all.” When there was an incident last year, Assistant Superintendent Ron Raglin was quick to address it. In fact, Ron reached out to me after the last wave of bomb threats to make sure we were OK.

Fifth, members of the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders have reached out to me, again, with a similar promise, not here in Elgin, not on their watch.

All of this makes me think we are very, very lucky in Elgin. We have not seen much anti-semitism—although every Jew at the ADL presentation has had some negative encounter in their life. Nonetheless, no matter how proactive we are, no matter how lucky we are, it would only take some kook. That’s why we build these relationships. That’s why we practice these drills.

Yossi Klein Halevy is right—we have to be both Purim Jews and Passover Jews—at the same time. We have to welcome the stranger and not be naïve. It is a hard but necessary balancing act.

There’s more though to Shabbat Zachor, and this is important too. In ways that therapists tell us that we are every part of our dreams, perhaps we are the Amalekites too. Not in a blame the victim sort of way. More like this Chassidic commentary teaches, as Rabbi Shawn Zevit reminded me earlier this week. I the Iturie Torah, it says: “Had the children of Israel not forgotten about the slower ones in back but instead, brought them closer under the protecting wings of God’s Presence, binding the slower to all of Israel, the Amalekites would not have succeeded in their attack. But because you allowed the slower ones to be aharekha (meaning both “behind you” and “other”), that you separated them off from you and made them “other”, and you forgot about your brothers and sisters, Amalek could viciously attack the. Therefore, the Torah tells us to remember Amalek, so that we never forget to bring our brothers and sisters who need special attention into our midst.”

And as Rabbi Toba Spitzer adds from nine years ago in Jerusalem, “As Jews we are commanded to erase the memory of Amalek, symbol of evil, and to combat wickedness, even that which resides within us.  For us: Amalekism is the evil inclination; Amalekism is baseless hatred; Amalekism is cruelty to the weak who live among us; Amalekism is the discrimination against the strangers and the aliens who dwell in our gates; Amalekism is racism.” (Gili Zivian, in Shabbat Shalom – Purim 5773)

We have to do both. We have to remember the Exodus from Egypt and that we were strangers, slaves, in a strange land. And we have to remember to never forget what the Amalekites did to us. We cannot afford to be naïve, especially, again in this time and place. And we must vow never to become like them. That is how we become Passover Jews and Purim Jews at the same time.