March 3, 2023
This Shabbat, as we are about to enter into the holiday of Purim, is known as Shabbat Zachor – The Shabbat of Memory. This comes from the Torah reading that is traditionally read, alongside the weekly Torah portion on this Shabbat, which reads: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—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.
Therefore, when your God יהוה grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that your God יהוה is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
The joyous festival of Purim falls neatly into that category put forth by the old joke: “Jewish holidays can be summed up as: They tried to kill us, they didn’t succeed, let’s eat!” We rejoice in the fact that the Jews who were slated by Haman, the King’s courtier, for certain destruction, were ultimately saved. But this salvation did not come by way of God sending plagues, as took place in the Exodus story. In fact – God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther (the scroll in which the Purim story is found, which we will read on Monday night), at all!
Haman is, in the Purim story, the particular manifestation of Jew hatred in 5th century Persia. In the special reading for Shabbat Zachor we read of Amalek, the name for the nation which is the paradigmatic enemy of the Jews, because of their deep-seated hatred for the Jews. In the span of just three verses, we are told three times in three different ways that no matter how safe and secure we may feel in our particular place and time, there will always be those who will hate us and seek our destruction. Taken together with the Purim story, in which God does not appear but rather it is the actions of Mordecai and Esther which save the Jews, we can understand the injunction to “Remember!” and “Blot out the memory of Amalek” and “Do not forget” as a call to action against hatred and violence in all times and places. After the Exodus from Egypt, throughout our history as a free people, we will have to take responsibility to be vigilant against hatred and evil in every time and place. We will always be one of many groups in human history who are persecuted because they are a minority, because they are “different.” Human beings need a scapegoat for fear, anger, disappointment, anxiety. The Jews have been that scapegoat in one way or another throughout our history. We must not forget that wherever hatred rises up, in word or deed, we must rise up to fight it – to blot it out.
In the United States, in 2023, blatant antisemitic actions and rhetoric have risen to levels not seen in most of our lifetimes. Coupled with the devastating recent and ongoing violence in Israel, and the existential threat to Israel’s democracy, this is a moment in which we feel vulnerable indeed. It is devastating to let in the scope of it all at once. We ask, how can this be happening? We have been so safe here for so long. So secure, so at home. Until the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in 2018, there had not been such a violent and deadly antisemitic attack on US soil. Enabled by fundamentalism, white supremacy, and anti-democratic movements rising up in many forms in the US and around the world, we are face to face with “Amalek” in ways we couldn’t have imagined until just a few years ago. Where is God? We are tempted to ask. Purim, with its joy born of the relief of salvation, comes to remind us: Aleynu – it is on us. It is our responsibility to root out hatred, Jew hatred and all forms of hatred, wherever and whenever we are living in this beautiful and broken world. The mitzvot of Purim – hearing the Purim story read from the megillah, enjoying a festive meal, giving mishloach manot – small tokens of sweets to one another, and giving matanon la’evyonim (gifts to the poor), each call us to turn toward one another. To look outward and connect with each other even if we live in a time of fear and vulnerability and may be tempted to turn inward. Connection and community are essential if we are to uproot forces of hatred and destruction. God’s name does not appear in the Megillah. The actions of Esther and Mordecai save our people. The rabbis of the Talmud understood Esther’s name as connected to the Hebrew words “hester panim” – the concealed face (of God). The greatest acts of salvation and hope, from the time our people was birthed into freedom after crossing the Red Sea, are to take place by human agency. When we come together, when we rejoice in a festive holiday in community despite the fears and sorrows of our time, when we act with compassion and justice and love, keeping our faces turned toward each other even if God’s face seems to be hidden– it is there, and then, that God is revealed.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman