- Shabbat Shalom
- This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim where we remember not only the deeds of Amalek when our ancestors came out of Egypt, but we remember this Shabbat all the acts of those who have hated our faith and our people and who have plotted our destruction from ancient times until the Modern Age.
- Our Maftir this morning is from parshat Ki Tetzeh in the Book of Devarim/Deuteronomy. It is an interesting place to find the commandment to remember Amalek. The original story of the attack of the Amalekites is found in Exodus, where it only tells us that they attacked us and we went to war with them and defeated them. There we are commanded to remember what they did to us when we came out of Egypt. It is in Devarim where we discover the reason why we were commanded to destroy them. “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.”
- The reason for the command to destroy Amalek is not because he attacked us, but because he attacked the rear of the march, he attacked the stragglers and the weak rather than making war on the people. For this inhumane act, we were commanded to destroy the people from off the face of the earth, a command that was fulfilled by King Saul as recorded in our Haftara. While the nation was destroyed, there are still, in every generation, those who have inherited the ways of Amalek, who have attacked our people when we were weak and struggling and who have been destroyed by those who God sent to deliver us. It is a fact of life that those who have attacked the Jewish people are no more, but the Jews always live on.
- To be honest, I have a lot of problems when we talk of God as an avenging God; when we speak of a God who would destroy a nation, men/women/children. I can see not wanting to take even a shoelace as spoils from that war, but why kill innocent children? I just don’t get it. And then to remember this war every year does not make me, anyway, more proud of my Judaism or of God. For a long time I just did not “get” parshat Zachor and the commandment to remember Amalek and to wipe all memory of Amalek from the face of the earth.
- But let me explain this Mitzvah from a different point of view. In both places where Amalek is mentioned, in Parshat Beshallach and Parshat Ki Teitze, the command is found at the very end of the parsha. In Beshallach, the main part of the parsha is about the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the great miracle that happens there. In Parshat Ki Tetze we have more Mitzvot than in any other Parsha in the Torah. There are 72 Mitzvot that we are commanded to perform in this Parsha, and Amalek is the very last of the entire list. Perhaps God is trying to tell us something about Amalek and about who and what we remember.
- Among the many pithy sayings on the walls of Ben’s restaurant, is the old joke, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” For many of us that is the summary of Jewish history. In every generation; from Amalek, to Haman, to the Syrian Greeks, the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, the Catholic church, England, France, Germany in the Middle ages. Spain and Portugal, Poland and Russia, Nazi and Communists; this is the rogues gallery of places and people who plotted against us in every generation. It is not a pretty journey through the history books. Time after time we were attacked by armies, and accused of blood libels, of child murder, well poisonings and of the corruption of all the important values of western civilization. It did not matter that we were responsible for teaching all those ideals that the west values. We represented to our enemies, all that was evil and wrong with the world and we needed to be destroyed. And in every generation Jews gave up their lives as martyrs and we persevered.
- I would like to claim, however, that this concept of Jewish history is wrong. It is not wrong because it never happened; it did happen. It is wrong because it is not what the vast majority of Judaism and Jewish history is all about. I used to ask Bar Mitzvah students to draw a picture of what a Jew looks like. These children coming of age in twenty first century America would draw for me the most anti-semitic drawings. The Jews they drew had long noses, funny hats and coats and scraggly beards. When I called them on it and asked them if they knew any Jew who looked like these pictures, they had no idea what I was talking about. I said to them. You have to understand, if you want to draw a picture of a Jew, you have to draw a picture of yourself. We can see what kind of self portrait our own children and grandchildren carry inside of them, the portraits that, in many cases, we have given to them through our lopsided view of history.
- It does not have to be this way, and it should not be this way. I am a student of History and I can tell you that there is a lot more to Jewish history than pogroms and murder. There is more to being Jewish than remembering Amalak and all those in every generation who tried to destroy us. We need to remember all the other Jewish parts of our lives if we are to be true to who we are and to be true to our faith.
- Judaism is not about those who tried to destroy us; it is about how we find God in every generation. Abraham found God by the terebinth of Mamre. Moses found God in the burning bush. David found God in the music of harp and psalm. Ancient Rabbis found God in their discussions of what Jewish Law is all about. Sages in the ninth century counted every word and letter of the Torah. The tenth century saw a Golden Age in Spain and Islamic countries. The eleventh century was a Golden Age in Italy. Rashi and Nachmanides lived and taught in the twelfth century. The fifteenth century saw a flowering of Jewish culture in Poland; the seventeenth century saw the beginning of Hasidism, with the Baal Shem Tov and Isaac Luria. The eighteen hundreds saw the rise of the great Yeshivot of Poland and the ninteeth and twentieth centuries saw the growth and development of Judaism in the Americas.
- Jewish history is filled with Jews who contributed to the advancement of arts and sciences. Do we know the names of Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael? Can we identify Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish or Beruryah? Every Jew in the world should not only recognize the names of Maimonidies, Joseph Karo, Moses Isserles, Abarvanel, Rabbenu Tam, Abraham ibn Ezra, Shmuel HaNagid, Glukel of Hamlin, the Maggid of Mezrich, Shlomo Alkabez, Yehuda HaLevy, the Vilna Gaon, Nachman of Bratzlav, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichiv, Shlomo Alter of Ger, Theodore Hertzl, Chaim Weitzman, David Ben Gurion, Gold Meir, Achad HaAm, the Hafetz Hayim, Zacharia Frankel, Abraham Geiger, Zev Jabotinsky, Col. Micky Marcus, Moshe Dayan, Henrietta Szold, Emma Lazerus, Solomon Schechter, Louis Finkelstein, Justice Louis Brandeis, Hank Greenberg, Groucho Marx, Monty Hall, Benjamin Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni, Deborah Wasserman Shultz, Ruth Bader Ginzburg, Amy Eilberg, Arnold Eisen, Rabbi Julie Schoenberg; not only should we recognize all of these names but we should also know their contribution to Jewish History. If you don’t know all these names you better get yourself to the library this week and get started on getting caught up.
- How dare we bemoan the tragedies of Jewish history if we don’t also remember the triumph of Judaism in the world? Is it any wonder that young people today don’t understand the tragedies of Jewish history? It is because we never teach them the joy of being Jewish and we never teach them about the great leaders who have inspired Jews in every generation! To fully remember Amalek, one must first remember the heroes of every age. Only if we fully understand how far we could rise in history, can we comprehend how much destruction our enemies brought to our people.
- This is why the commandment to remember Amalek is at the end of both parshiot. We can only fight Amalek as we did in Exodus, after we have witnessed the glory of God and the salvation of our people. We can fight our enemies successfully only when we fully understand what Judaism is and why it is worth fighting for. Amalek is mentioned only at the end of Ki Teitze, at the end of a list of some 71 other Mitzvot to teach us that for every enemy we recall, we need to find 71 positive reasons to practice our Judaism. Our religion is not about destruction; it is about how we establish the foundation upon which all of Western Civilization is built.
- Memory of Amalak can only make sense if we remember the positive commandments of our faith. We can only talk about the destruction of our enemies when we are fully immersed in the practices of our religion. To teach Jewish defense without teaching what we are fighting for is an empty lesson. Certainly to fully understand Judaism we need to know who tried to destroy us and how we can fight to defend our honor. To teach Judaism without Anti Semitism is to put our heads in the sand. To teach anti Semitism without teaching the principles of our faith is to lose our identity to those who hate us. We need both. Shabbat Zachor only comes once a year. We need to use the other 53 parshiot to learn about what there is to love about our faith.
- Only if we know who we are and where we come from, can we then learn the lessons of history from those who hate us. Let us not wipe the name of Amalek off the earth only after we have wiped the names of our heroes out of Jewish History. The greatness of Moses is the Torah that we read every day; and he is found in the pride we feel that he was a leader of our people, the man who brought our ancestors from slavery to freedom. The power of the Judaism Moses taught, was the reason, in every age we were victorious over Amalek. Only when we consider ourselves Jewishly literate, can we fully understand why we have always triumphed over evil.
May we dedicate ourselves on this Shabbat of Remembrance, to remember who we are and to commit some time, every day, to a study of all things Jewish. We can begin with becoming a patron of our Scholar in Residence which will be in just two more weeks. And may we not only find our way through the ups and downs of Jewish History, but may our Jewish studies bring us closer to God as well as we say …
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM