19 February 2021
When being open and caring
‘is not just something nice
to do … it is our obligation.’
Friday next is Purim (26 February), and this evening marks the beginning of Shabbat Zachor (שבת זכור), the ‘Sabbath of Remembrance’ immediately before Purim. As part of my Friday evening reflections this evening, I am reading Deuteronomy 25: 17-19, the additional reading this evening, recalling the attack by Amalek.
Purim is the holiday recalling how Haman was foiled by Esther in his plot to destroy the Jewish people. There is a tradition from the Talmud that Haman, the antagonist in the Purim story, was a descendant of Amalek. This reading includes a commandment to remember the attack by Amalek:
‘Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.’
The wording seems paradoxical: to remember Amalek yet, at the same time, to eradicate his memory from the face of the earth – and ‘do not forget.’
Do you find this with bad memories? I want to forget them, yet, in trying to erase them, they keep coming back into my mind and haunting my memories.
When the freed Hebrew slaves fled Egypt, no other nation dared to engage them in combat. Who would want to go into battled with a people whose God was associated with ten awesome plagues in Egypt, and with the drowning of the might of the Egyptian army in the sea?
Amalek alone was driven by enough hatred to wage battle. Deuteronomy 25 recalls that as the freed slaves were fleeing, Amalek picked off the old, the weak and the disabled who had lagged behind the rest of the people.
This extra portion of the Law, beginning with the phrase, ‘Remember what Amalek did to you,’ is linked to Purim because of the account of the meeting between Saul and Agag, the King of the Amalekites, in the special Zachor haftorah or reading on this Shabbat Zachor or ‘Sabbath of Remembrance.’
Rabbinic tradition says that when King Saul spared Agag, leaving him to Samuel to kill (see I Samuel 15: 2-34), this small gap in time was sufficient for Agag to become a father, resulting in time in the birth of Haman, the antagonist in the Purim story.
There is a story in the Midrash that in the time between being spared by Saul and his execution by Samuel, Agag cried out to God in prison: ‘Woe is me that my progeny will be lost to the world.’ There is something audacious about this Midrash. It attributes the birth of a demonic evil enemy of the Jewish people to the reward of a positive act by another wicked enemy of the Jews. Since Agag ‘prayed to God,’ he was rewarded with descendants.
What could the author of this Midrash possibly have had in mind here?
This Midrash probably sought to emphasise the idea that recognition of God and prayer never go unrewarded, not even when this prayer is by those who are furthest from God. If Agag was answered, then most certainly so are the prayers of those who believe in God and are faithful to God.
This affirmation that people are ultimately redeemable is crucial to the Jewish message. Optimism must reign. This message is particularly acute in the Purim story, where ultimate despair is rescued by optimism. In darkness, there will ultimately be light.
The rabbis puzzled over the apparently paradoxical command in Deuteronomy, which appears to say to remember and to forget.
Rabbi Stanley Halpern of Congregation Beth Shalom in Indianapolis suggests that the command to remember is a command to remember that it was actually the responsibility of everyone to protect all the community.
But they let the Amalekites kill off those who lagged behind, those who could not keep up and so remained outside the protection of the community. Everyone had to bear responsibility for what Amalek did. We must remember this and then blot out the name of Amalek (or Haman) so that they are forgotten.
In his comments, Rabbi Stanley Halpern says, ‘Most recently this set of commands has been applied to those with disabilities. All too many of our institutions are inaccessible to those with special needs … whether it is the lack of physical accessibility, assisted listening devices or Braille texts … all things which can be physically provided.’
And he continues: ‘But there is another type of accessibility which is not physical but, rather, emotional. Our Jewish community needs not just institutions that can be entered physically; they must be emotionally welcoming, too. All too often interfaith families, families with small children, gays and lesbians, those with very limited financial resources, Jews by Choice and Jews with illnesses are not truly welcome.
‘If we are to build a truly vibrant Jewish community, we must be open to all and welcome the varied contributions that a diverse population has to offer.’
In saying his synagogue must be open to all, he says, ‘we need to be a “Light to the Nations,” including to those Jewish institutions that are not as open and caring. We need to remind them that it is not just something nice to do … it is our obligation.’