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.