On 9/11: Reflections on Amalek

September 11, 2014
9/11

U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson, taken 9/15/2001

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! Deuterononmy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we read only a short time ago as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must remember: to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.


Never Forget – But Do More Than Remember!

February 19, 2013
Ester och Ahasverus i Vänge kyrka

Scroll of Esther (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Esther 3:1  After these things, Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and elevated him, and set his seat above all the nobels that were with him.

The Book of Esther doesn’t say why Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the bad guy of the story. What the book does say is that he was the son of an Agagite, which provides a link back to Israel’s Biblical enemy, Amalek.

Agag, the king of Amalek, appears first in the blessing of Balaam (Numbers 24:7) but he comes up again and again, finally to war again with Israel and be killed off by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15.  Amalek was an enemy we first encountered in the wilderness, where that nation preyed upon the stragglers on the margins of the camp (Exodus 17: 8-10). At the end of that chapter, God says to Moses:

Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.

This verse makes a puzzle:  how can we memorialize Amalek, rehearse the story of Amalek, but utterly blot out remembrance of Amalek?

First, and simplest, this is why we boo and make the groggers roar at the name of Haman. We are “blotting out” his name.

But more importantly, this is a warning about all the enemies to come in Jewish history as it unfolds, whether it is Rome, or Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain, or Hitler.  On the one hand: don’t forget. And on the other hand: don’t give these guys too much attention. Don’t reduce Judaism to ONLY remembering.

Purim reminds us that as long as we are here to celebrate it, Amalek has not prevailed.  So yes, we remember all the stories from the bad old days, but also we live vital lives of Torah in the here and now.  The Holocaust is important to remember, but it is also important not to make it the sum total of our identity as Jews. We are more than what has been done to us.

I’d say that’s something to celebrate.

 

 


#BlogExodus: What is Freedom?

March 29, 2012
Desert of the Sinai, Egypt Nederlands: De Sina...

Desert of the Sinai, Egypt Nederlands: De Sinaïwoestijn, Egypte Français : Le désert du Sinaï en Egypte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Freedom.  I have to admit that after hearing that word used as a mantra by every imaginable flavor of politician, I have trouble connecting with it.

So I tried looking back at the story, to get this idea back into context.  The Hebrew people followed Moses out of Egypt after a huge struggle between their God and Pharaoh.  Once they got to the far side of the Sea of Reeds, they celebrated because they were “free.”  And then almost immediately they began kvetching because life was hard, and the food was really bad.

What I learn from this is that whatever freedom is, it will not necessarily make me happy.  Back in Egypt, the Hebrews had taskmasters to tell them what to do.  They had guys with whips to preserve law and order.  They did not have to contend with the desert.  They did not have to take responsibility for themselves.  All of this suddenly turned into “the good old days” as soon as they were free in the desert.  They became noisily, chronically unhappy.  And yet this is the freedom we celebrate on Passover:  leaving Egypt.

So what did freedom mean, at that first Passover?  We had to learn to survive in the desert.  We had to learn to stick together.  We had to learn to look out for one another: midrash tells us that when we left stragglers behind at Rephidim, Amalek attacked (Exodus 17:16-18).  We had to learn to take responsibility for ourselves, plural.  We received commandments that underlined this: in Leviticus 19:16 we were told, “Lo ta’amod dam re’echa”:  “Do not stand [still] by the blood of your neighbor.”

Freedom is not being able to take breaks when I want, or to raise as many male children as I want, or to carry a gun, or to burn a flag.  Freedom is not merely being free to indulge myself.  And the “freedom” of the U.S. Constitution, whatever it is or will become, is not necessarily the freedom of Exodus.

The freedom of Exodus was the freedom to walk into the desert, with my people, and to be responsible for ourselves and for one another.

And before I write anything more about that, I need to think about it some more.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to find some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.


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