Tag Archives: Amalek

Remembering Amalek’s oppression of us-and others

10 Mar

I posted on my Facebook page this week an article reporting that 100 U.S. Senators signed a letter to President Trump demanding swift action to counter the surge in attacks on Jewish communal institutions. My posting without comment was meant to indicate praise of the Senate for this important bipartisan statement. In response to my posting, my brother, Aryeh Bernstein, a Judaic scholar and social activist in Chicago, referred me to a blog post that he had just written. He praises the letter from the Senators demanding the Administration do more. However, he then notes an important irony:

“[T]he Senate — divided and hostile at an historic level — unites in solidarity with our Jewish community in response to a frightening but (thankfully, so far) very low register of violence: robo-call threats that have given no indication of having backing to follow through, but cause fear and disruption of communal life, and scary property damage to Jewish sacred spaces (broken and vandalized synagogue windows, vandalized Jewish cemeteries). At the same time, Muslim, Indian, Black, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities and individuals have not received the concern, attention, and care of the Senate, even as they have faced similar, and, in many cases, more direct and lethal violence,” such arson attacks on mosques in Texas and Tampa and the murder of two Indian Americans in Kansas.

I’m grateful to Aryeh for this important reality check. Shabbat Zakhor calls on us to remember the weakest, most vulnerable members of society because we know what it’s like to be in their shoes. This week’s special maftir reading reminds us of the wicked machinations of Amalek who attacked the Israelites from behind, preying on the stragglers in the rear.  The full text is as follows:

17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

We read this section on the Shabbat prior to Purim because Haman of the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek and is therefore an archetype of evil. The great irony of the Amalek portion is that we are told simultaneously to remember Amalek AND to blot out the name of Amalek.

There is another odd feature of the Amalek portion. There is ambiguity regarding the phrase in verse 18, v’lo yirei Elohim. The New Jewish Publication Society translation moves this phrase from the end of the sentence to the beginning and says: “[H]ow, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down the stragglers in your rear. The merit of this translation is that it makes clear that the wicked Amalek lacks fear of God, another way of saying they have no common decency. On the other hand, there’s a problem. Another way of reading verse 18, based on the actual phrasing in the Hebrew is: “And you were tired and weary and did not fear God.” In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to read the text in a way that says the Israelites did not fear God! How can this be? Was it that the stragglers lost faith, thus becoming vulnerable to Amalek? What kind of God would do such a thing?

According to the late Rabbi Jack Bloom, z”l, in an article he published on this difficulty, he proposes that lo yirei Elohim does indeed refer to the Israelites. He writes: “Perhaps, at an Israelite army staff meeting, when an officer noted that there were those who trailed behind the camp, no junior officer or commanding general stood up to say, “We have stragglers out there; we have women and children, the famished and the weary, young and old who can’t keep up—we have to protect them somehow.

 

“No troops were deployed, no armed escort dispatched; no protection provided. The stragglers were not protected for the self-same reason the Amalekites attacked them. The Israelite high command had depersonalized their own people. They were the refuse, the impoverished, those no longer of any use in the long trek to Canaan. They were no longer of value. They did not matter. They had become other. They were depersonalized, left to perish in the desert, to be exterminated by Amalek. The Israelite leadership was lo yirei Elohim, ‘undeterred by fear of God.’”

We know that there are people in the world who have evil in their hearts and who do not fear God. To a large extent, their moral compass (or lack thereof) is out of our control. What we do control is ourselves and our actions. There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world of which Amalek may be an archetype. In response, we can actively choose to behave in a way befitting people who fear God.

When we remember Amalek, we not only remember Amalek’s attack, we remember the response of the Israelites to this disaster. At least according to one reading of the text, the response was less than satisfactory. It made the disaster worse instead of less severe. Zakhor et asher as lekha Amalek, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” rings true today. It’s not just the physical attack, but also the osmosis of Amalek-like thinking into the psyche of the Israelites that dehumanized the most marginal members of their society at the time of their greatest need. Shabbat Zakhor is an annual check-in for us. Rather than bemoaning all of the disasters that have befallen us and wallowing in our own victimhood, our task should be to reach out and be present to our neighbors who are also in pain. It’s great that the Senate speaks in a united voice to condemn anti-Semitism. This wasn’t always the case in American history. At the same time, we must not allow the Jewish community to be used as a fig leaf while reins of terror against other minority groups go by unchecked. Let’s resolve this Shabbat Zakhor, that we will not stand idly by while our neighbors are in fear. Let us remember and be present for those in need of support, because we know what it’s like. May our renewed resolve usher in a Purim worthy of our celebration.

Remembering what we’re “here after”

18 Mar
A Sikh protester is removed from a Trump rally.

A Sikh protester is removed from a Trump rally.

There’s a story told about a rabbi who was counselling a man in his congregation. The rabbi advised that it was time to start thinking about the hereafter. The congregant said, “No problem, Rabbi, I do that all the time. I walk upstairs and then I think, now what am I here after?”
Shabbat Zakhor is a communal reminder of what we are all here after. On the surface, on Shabbat Zakhor we remember the times that the Jewish people suffered because other nations preyed upon our vulnerabilities. If we dig deeper in the text, however, we find that Zakhor is as much directed at our own behavior as a community as those of other people. The special maftir reading is from Deuteronomy 25:17-19. We are reminded of the wicked machinations of Amalek who attacked the Israelites from behind, preying on the weakest and most vulnerable members of the society. The full text is as follows:

17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

We read this section on the Shabbat prior to Purim because Haman of the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek and is therefore an archetype of evil. The great irony of the Amalek portion is that we are told simultaneously to remember Amalek AND to blot out the name of Amalek.

There is another odd feature of the Amalek portion. There is ambiguity regarding the phrase in verse 18, v’lo yirei Elohim. The New Jewish Publication Society translation moves this phrase from the end of the sentence to the beginning and says: “[H]ow, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down the stragglers in your rear. The merit of this translation is that it makes clear that the wicked Amalek lacks fear of God, another way of saying they have no common decency. On the other hand, there’s a problem. Another way of reading verse 18, based on the actual phrasing in the Hebrew is: “And you were tired and weary and did not fear God.”

In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to read the text in a way that says the Israelites did not fear God! How can this be? Was it that the stragglers lost faith, thus becoming vulnerable to Amalek? What kind of God would allow such a thing? Furthermore, the command is to remember what Amalek “did to you,” and we get the sense that the concern is not only external—a cowardly attack on the weakest Israelites—but also internal. Our sages have long intuited that Amalek represents, yetzer ha’ra, internal corruption. The verses just before this passage in Deuteronomy 25 speak about unethical business practices—the keeping of uneven weights by merchants, which is an “abomination to the Lord.” The juxtaposition implies that it was our own corruption that made us susceptible to attack. Amalek is the evil inclination, and when we allow its voice to control our conduct, we cheat others and become worthy of attack. If we look back to Exodus 17, the original narrative of Amalek’s attack is preceded by the complaints of Israel, who said, “is the Lord in our midst or not?” In both places internal discord leads to external disaster. This is hardly a coincidence.

We know that there are people in the world who have evil in their hearts and who do not fear God. To a large extent, their moral compass (or lack thereof) is out of our control. What we do control is ourselves and our actions. There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world of which Amalek may be an archetype. In response, we can actively choose to behave in a way befitting people who fear God.

What was true of ancient Israel is true of modern Israel, and also of America. There are very real external enemies such as ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the waves of lone wolf terrorists in Israel who have carried out savage stabbing attacks in Israel. We remember Taylor Force, an American business student at Vanderbilt, who was stabbed to death in Jaffa. Our community and our country must be strong, vigilant and brave in facing and fighting these real external threats.

At the same time, I am gravely concerned about the danger to both Israel and to America that comes from within. When we abandon our better selves and give in to fear, anger and hatred, then we become weak and unworthy. The recent Pew study of Israel shows that a majority of self-identified religious Jews wish to “transfer” Arabs out of the country. This, I believe, would be a betrayal of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and of the democratic nature of the State. Likewise, I am deeply concerned about the political atmosphere in America. Our political system has been ugly and mean-spirited for years, but never before have we seen blatant calls by a major candidate for President to incite mob violence against his detractors. Until now. Our democracy thrives on disagreement and spirited debate over issues of substance. Without these basic pillars, democracy crumbles.

When we remember Amalek, we not only remember Amalek’s attack, we remember the response of the Israelites to this disaster. At least according to one reading of the text, the response was less than satisfactory. It made the disaster worse instead of less severe. Zakhor et asher asa lekha Amalek, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” rings true today. It’s not just the physical attack, but also the osmosis of Amalek-like thinking into the psyche of the Israelites that dehumanized the most marginal members of their society at the time of their greatest need. Shabbat Zakhor is an annual check-in for us. It’s a reminder of what we’re “here after.” Let us resolve this Shabbat Zakhor, that we will not marginalize others and strive to bring healing and kindness to our community. May our renewed resolve usher in a joyous Purim.

Zakhor: The Meaning of Steven Sotloff’s Death

5 Sep
Steven Sotloff, 1983-2014

Steven Sotloff, 1983-2014

Parashat Ki Tetze, ends with the mitzvah of Zakhor: Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amalek: 17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19 Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

This Shabbat we remember Steven Sotloff, z”l. An American journalist from Miami, he was also Jewish. In 2008 he made aliyah and held dual American and Israeli citizenship. As a journalist, he was committed to uncovering the truth, even if it meant putting himself in great danger. While on assignment in Syria last year, he was kidnapped by the Islamic State. When another American journalist, James Foley, of blessed memory, was brutally murdered and beheaded by ISIS, the terrorists announced that Sotloff was next. Despite an emotional appeal by his mother, Sotloff was brutally executed and beheaded this week. Our nation mourns. Within our shock and outrage, we ask how it is that these ISIS terrorists can imagine the brutality that they have committed.

Within our tradition, the rabbis ask the same question about Amalek. In the Midrash, the rabbis ask what was Amalek’s motive? After all, following the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites showed the world they had God on their side. What could a nation hope to gain by attacking Israel?

The Midrash uses the analogy of a boiling hot bath. The first person that jumps in gets badly burned – but cools the bath off considerably, making it easier for the next person to jump in. Amalek so badly wanted the Israelites destroyed, that they were willing to attack Israel even after having witnessed how God’s powerful hand had protected them. Amalek was defeated, as the Torah tells us, but their gutsy, almost suicidal, attack on the Jews did a lot to alter the prevalent thinking of the time that the Jews and their God were invincible.

The world has a bad habit of standing by watching terrorists brutalize innocent civilians. The world has been particularly tolerant of Hamas terrorists who threaten the lives of millions of Israelis with rockets and tunnels and then put their own children in harm’s way as defensive shields when Israel retaliates against the rocket fire. When the democratic nation of Israel defends her citizens from terrorism, Israel is reviled throughout the world and accused of war crimes. What many around the world fail to understand is that if terrorism fueled by Islamic fundamentalism is allowed to exist in Israel, it will spread to the rest of the civilized world. As Prime Minister Netanyahu says, if Israel is forced to tolerate terror, it will come soon to a theater near you. Tragically, that is what we are witnessing with ISIS. President Obama called ISIS a cancer that must be stopped before it spreads even more. It’s an apt metaphor; however, we must recognize both the source of the cancer and prior failures to fight it.

James Foley and Steven Sotloff are hardly the first Americans to fall victims to the diabolical terror of Islamic fundamentalism. This week, we mark the 13th anniversary of 9/11 when 3,000 people died on our soil. The mitzvah of Zakhor extends beyond words and tributes to those who perished at the hands of terrorists. Zakhor requires further action.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I believe our nation failed to seize the moment to challenge Americans to make our society better and more respected in the world. The mitzvah of remembering Amalek caps a parasha with more mitzvoth than any other parasha: fair weights and measures in business, safe building practices in home construction, and protection of the weaker members of society. It’s as if a message of our parasha is that the best antidote to evil is a society that lives by laws and high moral principles. When there is a breakdown of that structure, Amalek is invited to enter.

In the midst of self-reflection of how we in Western civilization have allowed terrorism to spread, there’s another angle to explore. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, wrote three years ago how Osama bin Laden thought he could get away with it. The same question applies today to ISIS and their genocidal rampage. Rav Sacks writes that bin Laden thought he could get away with it because he saw the West in decline.

Sacks writes about the moral decline of our society and the diminishing commitment to communal values throughout the West. He writes: “Whenever Me takes precedence over We, and pleasure today over viability tomorrow, a society is in trouble. If so, then the enemy is not radical Islam, it is us and our by now unsustainable self-indulgence.
The West has expended much energy and courage fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq abroad and defeating terror at home. It has spent far less, if any, in renewing its own morality and the institutions — families, communities, ethical codes, standards in public life — where it is created and sustained. But if I am right, this is the West’s greatest weakness in the eyes of its enemies as well as its friends.”

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas and other radical groups scoff at our values in which preservation of life reigns supreme. Like Amalek generations ago, they willingly jump into a hot bath to show the world that beheadings can be done. Our leaders must have the moral gumption to fight this tyranny and stop it. Moreover, we as citizens must continue to build a society rooted in the highest values of human dignity.

Rav Sacks’ words about 9/11 ring true today. He writes:

“The only way to save the world is to begin with ourselves. Our burden after 9/11 is to renew the moral disciplines of freedom. Some say it can’t be done. They are wrong: it can and must. Surely we owe the dead no less.”

May we be inspired by Parashat Ki Tetze to create a just society that prevents Amalek from rearing its ugly head. That will be the best way we can honor Steven Sotloff’s memory, may his memory be for a blessing.

#TieBlog #Tzav

13 Mar
The eternal flame

The eternal flame

Parashat Tzav continues discussion of the order of sacrifices and contains the instruction that the kohanim (priests) maintain a perpetual flame on the altar. That would be enough for displaying my fiery tie this week. However, this week is also Shabbat Zakhor. We remember the attack on our ancestors by Amalek that was a precursor to their descendant Haman’s planned attack on the Jews of Persia as described in Esther. On Shabbat Zakhor we pause to recall all times in history when mightier powers preyed upon weaker and more vulnerable Jews. The eternal flame of remembrance reminds us of these sacrifices as well as the need never to let ourselves prey on the weak and vulnerable in our society.