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Parashat Tetzaveh

As I mentioned in my YouTube video this week, in addition to being Parashat Tetsaveh, this is also Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of “Remember.” That is because, as our final Torah reading, we are commanded to read from Deuteronomy 25, starting with verse 17. The passage is typically translated something like this:

“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 Hashem your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Hashem your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

We read this out of sequence, right before Purim,  because the first verse of chapter 3 of the Book of Esther tells us that Haman himself is an Agagite. Agag is described in I Samuel as the king of the Amalekites, so Haman is a hereditary enemy of the Jewish people. By reading “zachor” – Remember Amalek, right before Purim, we place the Purim story in a more cosmic context. Haman is not just Haman, but one manifestation in one historical moment of recurring, cyclical evil – an evil whose very memory we are puzzlingly commanded to remember to blot out.

Despite the many mitzvot that became inoperative with the various ancient conquests and Jewish exiles, this one remains in effect. In the 12th century Mishnah Torah code of law, Maimonides lists the commandment to destroy Amalek as a positive commandment that is still at least hypothetically binding on all Jewish people.

That is one reason, by the way, that we make noise when we hear Haman’s name – it is a blotting out the memory of a descendant of Amalek.

But the question of how to blot out Amalek has more serious implications than the noise we make on Purim. Because in the contemporary era, there are two very divergent philosophical strands regarding what Amalek is and how we seek and destroy it.

Writing in 1956, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great thought leader and intellectual patriarch of Religious Zionism, wrote in his father’s name that the commandment to war against Amalek applied not only to his literal descendants but also to “any other nation that stands ready to destroy us,” and He specifically named the Nazis, and the Arab nations that were currently inciting against Israel.

Until this year, the most dramatic consequence of Soloveitchik’s explicit equation of Amalek with contemporary Arabs occurred 29 years ago, in 1994, when an American-born physician named Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians and injured more than others 100 with an assault rifle as they prayed during Ramadan, which overlapped that day with Purim. As Dr. David Slater points out, Goldstein was a follower of Meir Kahane, a Jewish nationalist whose views were so extreme that his political party was outlawed – though his followers are now part of the ruling governmental coalition today. Kahane argued that any nation that is “hostile” to Israel is Amalek and should be blotted out like Amalek. Though Goldstein’s massacre was condemned by the Israeli government at the time, the current minister of National Security in the Knesset kept a portrait of Goldstein prominently displayed in his home in 2020.[1]

The philosophical approach of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the 19th century German founder of Modern Orthodoxy is in many ways in opposition to the Kahanist approach. Contemporary Israeli scholar Gili Zivan quoted his position in a powerful dvar Torah 10 years ago:

“Forget not this, should the day come and you will desire to resemble Amalek and like him […] seek opportunities through means small and great to exploit your superiority in order to hurt people […] do not forget this thing . . . There will come a day that you – the Jewish nation – will be powerful, and then in particular must be you careful not to be infected by that Amalekite-ism which is expressed through the exploitation of your strength in order to demean and to destroy those weaker than yourself.”

In a similar vein, she points out: “R. Moshe Avigdor Amiel, Rabbi of Tel Aviv who did in 1946, and was a leader of the Mizrachi, saw in the war against Amalek the war of God against militarism:

God, blessed be, does like wars in the world; on the contrary, “Shalom” is the name of the Holy One, blessed be. One obligatory war did [God] decree and that is the war against Amalek, the war against wars in general. . .”[2]

While understanding the commandment to blot out Amalek to still be in force, Rav Hirsch and Rav Amiel’s position lead to a completely different orientation. Instead of understanding Amalek as a group of people who need to be physically fought, over and over, they understand Amalek as a tendency that any, even we, can be susceptible to – and that fighting Amalek begins within ourselves – most particularly at the moment when we might have the power to unleash violence against those that we think of as our enemies.

This discussion could not be more timely. This week two Jewish settlers in the West Bank were murdered by terrorists. In response, Jews unleashed what can accurately be described as a pogrom against the Palestinian village of Huwara.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker writes about the tension:

This week, we have once again experienced Jews being attacked and murdered with their guard down.  It is thus natural to reach for Parashat Zakhor when seeking vengeance for what was taken from us.  It can seem like a made-for-the-moment text: a passage in the Torah that calls out those who prey on the weak, and demands that we identify the external enemy who took them down and eradicate them.

But this week, we also saw a great desecration of God’s name, as religious Jews torched hundreds of homes in the village whence the attackers came.  Pausing to daven Maariv as the flames rose from the village, these young men, wearing their kippot and tzitzit, may have felt they were fulfilling the Biblical command we read about this week: taking revenge on our enemies.  They may have felt triumphant echoes of the megillah–“וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם כִּרְצוֹנָם–the Jews dealing with their enemies as they see fit.” (Esther 9:5)

In reality, though, they were reminding us about the real essence of the war against Amalek: how only a hair’s breadth separates Israel from its arch enemy.  The preying on the weak, the loss of moral compass, the pursuit of power within all of us, especially the people of Israel.”

So as we celebrate Purim this year, by all means, let’s blot out the name of Haman. But let’s also remember that blotting out Amalek is as much internal as external work, and that we are not absolved from either facet of the work.



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Of Trees and People (Jan/Feb 2023)

These months always feel like a fallow time, not only in terms of the solar cycle, but also the Jewish year cycle. The lights of Hanukkah are behind us and the excitement of Purim and Pesach as yet on the horizon of far off spring. The one holiday that we do have in this season, Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, always feels slightly out of place: with no signs even of buds yet, much less leaves or luscious fruits, there doesn’t seem to be much to celebrate in early February, when it falls this year.

Historically, the fact that the trees themselves are fallow at this time is probably the reason this became their new year. The ancient Jewish new years all had a practical, even fiscal element—they designated items for tax purposes, just like today the Gregorian new year has fiscal implications for income earned before or after. Masechet Rosh Hashanah 14a teaches that Tu B’Shvat was the new year of trees exactly because “most of the rains have fallen, but much of winter still remains.” In other words, nothing was remotely near harvestable around then, so it would be very clear which tax year any tree fruit would be assigned.

Even now, across the world from the land of Israel, and 2000 years from the ancient system of tithes, there is still wisdom in celebrating the new year of the trees in a time when the trees appear most inactive: it reminds us that life flows beneath the surface, that the potential for bud, leaf, flower and fruit exist even now. There is holiness in the winter work of tending and pruning. Trees are easy to celebrate when we are picking fruit in an orchard or luxuriating in the shade on a bright summer day. This is the time of year when, most poised to hunker down, we need to remind ourselves of the glory of life most actively.

As a mystical take on Deuteronomy 20:19 teaches, “A human is a tree of the field” – and just as trees need this time to gather inner resources, I hope that all of you are taking care of yourselves in the cold, and nurturing within yourself the spark that will burst forth when it is ready.

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Losing sight of the pregnancy in abortion debate

The Register-Guard (December 2021)

Two years ago I underwent a harrowing medical condition. For nine months, my body housed a rapidly expanding uterine growth. It drained my energy, created arthritic symptoms in my joints and caused weight gain of almost 40 pounds. I expelled it from my body in a dangerous process involving 17 hours of increasingly intense pain. I required several weeks of recuperation.

I willingly put up with this—twice! I wanted the babies, and I love the children they are becoming. But as abortion is relitigated, and the issue remains framed as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” I feel perturbed.

We largely don’t talk about pregnancy when we talk about abortion — about lawmakers decreeing that other people’s bodies must house something that is excruciatingly uncomfortable and potentially mortally dangerous for nearly a year. In our society, this process coincides with lack of support for the well-being of those women’s bodies and insufficient time to recover from the physical exhaustion of pregnancy and birth.

When I recall this exhausting condition, I am pained at the idea that anyone who doesn’t want to be a parent would be forced to endure pregnancy.

I strongly believe in protecting innocent life. While my faith tradition doesn’t teach that human life begins at conception, I can respect that belief. I can even agree that in an ideal world, abortion would never happen outside of medical necessity; people would have the knowledge and resources to prevent unwanted pregnancy and every conception would be wanted.

The Bible demands that we all care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger: the vulnerable who tend to be invisible and neglected. But as a spiritual leader, I am also aware that it is easy — and even cheap — to demand that someone else do the caring. The harder and more important spiritual challenge is recognizing the obligations in our own lives to care for the vulnerable.

Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who spent decades working to ban abortion, wrote a New York Time op-ed in 2019 about his change of heart. He admitted that pro-life work often ends at birth, failing to provide any social or financial support for young mothers and children.

In his words, “I can no longer pretend that telling poor pregnant women they have just one option — give birth and try your luck raising a child, even though the odds are stacked against you — is ‘pro-life’ in any meaningful sense.”

Pregnancy is difficult enough when it is wanted, as mine were. In a society that fails to prevent sexual violence or offer even basic sex education, let alone health care, parental leave or other services, it is immoral to require women to just “take responsibility” for an unwanted pregnancy.

Those who refuse to advocate for welfare, guaranteed food, housing, child care and medical care for needy families are guilty of cheap caring when they simultaneously demand that women find room within their very bodies for fetuses they do not want.

It’s easier to demand another person put her own body at risk to nourish a life than it is to accept a personal share of responsibility for all the lives already here.

Her column will resume after she completes a five-month sabbatical in June 2022. 

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