Our Voices (HaKolot Shelanu)

A Sabbath to Remember

The following d’var Torah (sermon) was given on Saturday, March 7th by Dr. Hal M. Lewis. In addition to being a member of CBI, Dr. Lewis is the former President and CEO of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago.

Shabbat shalom. As you have already heard, today is shabbat zakhor the sabbath to remember, which immediately precedes Purim. While its thematic linkage to Purim will soon become apparent, this day itself has much to offer us as thinking, modern Jews.

The specially selected maftir reading for today gives this shabbat its name –

זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים. 

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, they surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary … and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

What must we remember on this shabbat zakhor? Zakhor/Remember how the nation of Amalek murdered the weak and the sick who could not keep up with the more able-bodied individuals leaving Egypt. What a despicable group of low-lifes, these Amalekites! Understood by commentators throughout the millennia to be godless marauders and plunderers of the worst order, who took advantage of the enfeebled and the infirmed.

And in what way must we remember these vile Jew haters?

Here’s what the text tells us: 

תמחה את זכר עמלק מתחת השמים, לא תשכח.

 You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

Before unpacking the complexities of these two commandments – “you shall blot out the memory” and “do not forget!” let us first make explicit what many of you already know to be the case. According to the Talmud, the villain of this coming week’s Purim story, Haman (wait for boos) is a descendant of the nation of Amalek. In fact, in this morning’s haftarah the king of Amalek is a man named, Agag. And, not coincidentally, when we read the megillah on Monday evening and Tuesday morning, we will note that the text refers to Haman as “agagi,” that is, Haman, the Agagite. Herein lies the textual and thematic linkage – Purim describes the vile work of Haman, the Agagite, the descendant of Amalek, the nation responsible for attacking the Israelites at their weakest. Hence, shabbat zakhor, with its command to remember what Amalek did to you, sets the stage for, and immediately precedes, Purim in our communal calendar.

Merely having explored the calendrical connection, however, does not get us any closer to understanding the complexities of this day. The text confronts us with a critical quandary, one that cannot be glossed over easily. On the one hand we are told to eradicate the memory of Amalek, on the other hand, we are instructed lo tishkach – do not forget. Well, which is it? Blot out or Remember?

It seems to me that this is no mere word play, It is, in fact, an essential dilemma of Jewish existence. A dilemma we feel even more acutely in our own day. For millennia, Jews struggled to balance the need to remember what our enemies have done to us – זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק   while guarding against the possibility that as a nation and as individual Jews we could become defined by such memories of persecution.

Fortunately, our forebears understood tragedy to be a component of, not the quintessence, of the Jewish experience. Instead, creativity, vibrancy, vitality, piety, resilience, and holiness were the values our ancestors chose to transmit to their offspring, not moroseness and despondency. Jewish leaders taught that Judaism is a religion of joy and celebration, of personal meaning and existential resonance.  When it came to our communal history, Jews well understood the realities of anti-Jewish persecutions, without succumbing to the debilitations of fixating on the negative, without falling into a perennial state of melancholy and depression. We could, as it were, (and I want to say this carefully) peregrinate and masticate at the same time. The lessons of pre-modern Jewish history then, suggest that shabbat zakhor has it right. We can blot out and remember simultaneously.

This historical equipoise notwithstanding, Jewish attitudes began to change post-World War II, where, in the decades following, we start to see a radical departure from this balancing act. As the horrors of the Holocaust became known, followed by fears of a second Jewish genocide in the face of the 1967 Six Day War, Jewish leaders adopted a “survivalist mentality.” As described by the late educator and thought leader, Jonathan Woocher, Jews in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, elevated the survival of Jews over the survival of Judaism. We redefined what it meant to be Jewish. In our communal institutions we feted the bravery of sun-baked Israeli generals and across this country we funded the construction of Holocaust memorials in cities large and small. We dedicated ourselves to what Woocher called “sacred survivalism,” while allowing the historic values of literacy, observance and spirituality to languish in the background.

Not surprisingly, this obsession with survival for its own sake, which spawned an expansive new infrastructure of communal organizations across North America, took a toll and, over time, engendered its own counter-reaction as we edged closer to the 21st century. As many of us have come to understand, Judaism is more than anti-Semitism and its richness and depth span far more than an exclusive focus on surviving alone. Inspired by the writings of the preeminent American Jewish historian, Salo Baron, a new generation of Jewish leaders rejected the so-called “lachrymose theory of Jewish history,” in which, as Baron himself wrote, “an overemphasis on Jewish sufferings distorted the total picture of the Jewish historic evolution.” Despite the Shoah and the threats to Israel’s survival, our contemporary generation of rabbis, academics, thinkers, and NPR listeners cautioned that Jewish history is not to be seen simply as a series of persecutions. Instead, we were urged to form social justice alliances and embrace universalism, rather than fixate on the particularisms of the past.

Twenty-first century Jewish leaders sought to marginalize the impact of modern-day Amalekites; they instructed us to stop screaming “anti-Semitism” every time someone criticized Israel or advocated boycotts. Further, they insisted we turn away from tribalism and peoplehood in favor of individualism, personal meaning and what the sociologists Eisen and Cohen dubbed the “sovereign self,” in which Judaism becomes a smorgasbord of highly personalized, and ever-evolving idiosyncratic choices. These post-survivalist, post-communitarian Jewish leaders embraced a Judaism of tikkun olam. Reminiscent of the quip attributed to Mark Twain that, “Some people are so open-minded that their brains fall out,” many of these contemporary Jewish thinkers resisted calls to blot out Amalek as “unenlightened and antiquated.”They were, however, quite willing to condemn Amalekitism, that is the blatant abuse of power, especially when those guilty of abuse were now thought to be the Israel Defense Forces or the philanthropic oligarchs who run organized Jewish life. Imbued with a sense of universality, these individuals cautioned strongly against preoccupation with anti-Semitism, insisting that such ugliness be relegated to hoary antiquity, rather than have it define the post-modern Jewish experience.

And then, then, of course, came Toulouse and Paris, Pittsburgh and Poway, New York, Jersey City and South Florida. A frightening rise of anti-Semitism on the right and the left that we were pretty sure could never happen, not in the 21st century. Suddenly, contemporary Jewish organizations, and American Jews writ large, no longer seem to need a special shabbat for us to, “Remember what Amalek did to you.” No, today, the well-documented rise of anti-Jewish outbreaks have put concerns about defending our people and protecting our institutions front and center every shabbat, in ways we had not thought about for decades.

In its insistence to both forget and to remember, shabbat zakhor is the bulwark against the pendulum swings of Jewish history. Is there a danger in obsessing over survival? Absolutely. Generations of 20th century American Jews and their progeny have paid a heavy price for such a distorted monomania. When defense becomes our raison d’etre, we lose sight of Judaism’s essence; it’s beauty, its meaning, and its richness. As post-war American Judaism made clear, no one will stay Jewish very long if the only reason to be Jewish is to revenge the anti-Semite or revere the bravery of the pioneer Israeli soldier.

But ignoring the realities of contemporary Amalek because doing so runs counter to our preferred idyllic narrative of modern-day Jewish life, is equally as distorted. Much as we would love to believe that merely forming coalitions with kindred spirits beyond the Jewish community will eradicate millennia of irrational Jew hatred, it will not. And simply pledging ourselves to a highly individualized, personally meaningful Judaism that seeks to deny the value of tribalism, or ignores the dark stains in our people’s history, is an indulgence we can ill afford.

With its dual injunctions to both blot out and to remember, shabbat zakhor embodies a tension, not easily resolved, but ignored at our peril. This coming week, when we hear the megillah, we cannot let Haman’s animus define the totality of the Jewish experience any more than we can pretend that his brand of toxic lethality has gone out of fashion in our modern era. Shabbat shalom.

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Our Voices features the insights and thoughts of  CBI members and guests. Topics include, but are not limited to, personal insights on the weekly Torah portion, thoughts about community, Jewish identity, culture and more. We welcome your thoughts.  If you wish to contribute, please send your blog post to alan@alansilverman.com, along with any pictures you'd like to include. Thanks and we look forward to sharing your thoughts with the CBI community.