Tag Archives: Zakhor

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.

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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.

14 Mar
Memorial to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Memorial to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Where is that airplane, and why did it disappear? The mysterious loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 continues to vex security and transportation officials, leaders of government and people of good will around the world. Recent reports suggest that the lost aircraft was airborne for several hours after contact was lost with it and that it had flown west over the Indian Ocean. The prospect of foul play, therefore, seems more ominous. For the passengers on the plane, what did they know what was happening to them and when did they know it? On 9/11, many passengers aboard the four hijacked airplanes were able to communicate with loved ones with their mobile phones before dying. We know that they knew. We don’t as yet have such evidence from Flight 370. At the same time, on this Shabbat Zakhor, we recall acts of terror carried out by violent enemies against our people. The ominous possibility that acts of terror in the skies claimed the lives of innocent people gives us the chills. Even if the fate of the aircraft was a result of mechanical failure, let’s reflect a bit further on what the men and women on board may have been thinking.

The prospect of facing certain death and reflecting on it over a period of hours or minutes is terrifying. On Yom Kippur in 1986, Rabbi Kenneth Berger addressed this very issue at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Tampa. In a now famous sermon titled “Five Minutes to Live,” Rabbi Berger reflected on the seven astronauts of the Space Shuttle Challenger who perished in the disaster earlier that year. Evidence was found that the astronauts did not die in the explosion but when the capsule impacted the ocean waters. Rabbi Berger said, “For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain.”

Rabbi Berger then asked his congregation to consider the question: “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?” He challenged his congregation to live their lives as though they had five minutes left. Not in a cynical way by saying, “What’s the point?” But in a spiritual way; a way that will help us channel our direction. He spoke about serving God in those five minutes and expressing our love for our loved ones.

Less than three years later, in July 1989, Rabbi Berger was with his wife and two of his children on United Airlines flight 232 to Philadelphia. After the engines failed, the flight was forced to make an emergency landing.

In the crash landing 185 out of 285 passengers were killed, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, Aviva, while their children survived. During those moments as the plane was descending rapidly to an uncertain fate, Rabbi Berger probably thought about his own sermon.

On this Shabbat Zakhor, Erev Purim, we reflect on the fragility and preciousness of life. The mitzvah of remembrance is to remind us that innocent lives lost long ago are precious. We resolve to maintain the flame of memory in order to make meaning out of our lives. Why do we have Shabbat Zakhor before Purim? Wouldn’t it make sense to fold the themes of this Shabbat into the somber day of Yom Kippur?

It turns out, there is a strange nexus between Purim and Yom Kippur. Both holidays remind us to ask ourselves what we would do if we had five minutes to live. Various sources in our tradition highlight the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur.

The rabbis of the Midrash ask: “What was the good name that [Esther] earned for herself? That all the festivals may be nullified, but the days of Purim will never be nullified… Rabbi Eliezer says, Yom Kippur, too, will not be nullified. (Midrash – Yalkut Shimoni, Esther 944)

Furthermore, according to the Zohar, the Hebrew name for Yom Kippur — Yom KipPURIM — alludes to the similarity between these two seemingly dissimilar days. Yom KipPURIM [literally means] “a day that is like Purim.” It seems incongruous that a day of joyous revelry and a day of awesome introspection should be more similar to one another than any of the other festivals to one another. What is it about Purim and Yom Kippur that create this relationship?

As Rabbi Sharon Brous writes, “The reversibility of fortune, the capriciousness of life, is a message Purim shares with Yom Kippur…Yom Kippur compels us to reflect on the unavoidable uncertainty of our lives. But on Yom Kippur we dive into this terrifying reality with austerity, reflection and spiritual wakefulness, whereas on Purim we respond by celebrating, imbibing and masquerading.”

Yom Kippur and Purim ask the common question: “What would I do if I had five minutes to live?” Both holidays acknowledge the frailty and uncertainty of life. The answers offered by each holiday, however, seem diametrically opposed to each other.

Yet Yom Kippur is more than a day of somber reflection; it is a Yom Tov, a festival, when we celebrate being cleansed of sin. At the same time, Purim is more than a day of rowdy gluttony. Our tradition has bestowed us with mitzvot, commandments, to perform acts of generosity and community building on Purim: “Make them days of feasting and gladness and of mishloah manot (sending portions of food) one to another, and matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor)” (Esther 9:22). As Rabbi Brous writes, “We embrace the confusion and moral ambiguity of Purim with a renewed commitment to social transformation, responding to the mess of life by giving our family and friends sweet gifts and by giving generously to the poor. In other words, the only way to make sense of the absurd randomness of life and the social order is to honor the loving relationships that sustain us and work to address the imbalance of fortunes that leaves some with abundance and others with nothing. Mishloah manot and matanot l’evyonim come to reinforce that while we cannot control the world, we can control the way we live in it.”

When we give to others on Purim, we acknowledge our lack of control over our destinies. After all, life can change drastically in the span of just five minutes. Therefore, we must give generously today, for tomorrow, God forbid, we could be begging for a little spare change.

Three years before his death, Rabbi Berger had the foresight to remind himself and the broader community that life is not forever and that he only had a proverbial five minutes left.” The same is true for us.

On this Shabbat Zakhor, our thoughts are with the families of loved ones on Flight 370 who must be in unbearable pain. Let us resolve to make sure our leaders are vigilant against senseless acts of violence and terror. Let us also resolve to bring more love and kindness into the world.

We might not realize it yet, but we all only have five minutes left. The clock is ticking….

#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.