Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers reflects on Purim and Shabbat Zachor – the Shabbat of remembering.
As Purim approaches, it is hard not to notice that tensions with Iran (the modern day equivalent of Persia) are reaching ever increasing heights, with suspected Iranian bombers arrested in Thailand, and attacks carried out in New Delhi and Tiblisi against Israeli diplomats. Not to mention ongoing discussions over Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
There are plenty of people who have made the connection between Ahmadinajad and the concept of ‘Amalek’, said to be an antecedent of Haman, and often associated with any despot who has tried to annihilate the Jews, so perhaps it is inevitable that as Purim approaches these activities will play even more on some minds.
The shabbat before Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor – the Shabbat of remembering – when we are commanded to remember by hearing Deuteronomy 25 read. This passage asks us to recall the attack of Amalek upon the Israelites as they left Egypt, found in Exodus 17. But Deuteronomy 25 begins by telling us to remember what Amalek did, and ends by commanding us to blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. Slightly confusing.
And also slightly worrying to some minds. Why are we asked to wipe out the Amalekites entirely? This instruction to total annihilation isn’t something I’m terribly comfortable with, particularly in light of our own history (though I know to others it is precisely because of this history that we must meet such threats with full force). The need for the destruction of Amalek seems to be about how Amalek undertook their attack on the Israelites, not because they attacked them at all. Their approach (not mentioned in Exodus 17 where the initial battle occurs, but brought in Deuteronomy) is to assault the Israelites from the rear, picking off the weak and vulnerable, rather than facing the full might of the tribe (still little more than a rabble of slaves) from the front.
This is the kind of behaviour used again and again through history to try and identify Amalek’s literal or perhaps metaphorical descendents: Haman, of course, Hitler, Atheists (according to the Baal Shem Tov), even Armenians until the 19th Century according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica. And today, Ahmadinajad has become for many the symbol of a man out to utterly destroy the Israelites.
But we are still left with a problem, whoever we may associate with the Amalek of the past or today. How do we both remember, and annihilate the memory from under heaven? I’m sure many people outside the Jewish community would also be happy to see a regime change in Iran, but that doesn’t mean we should be gunning for a total destruction of the Iranian nation as a symbol (or even literal incarnation) of modern day Amalakites. Even the slaughter at the end of the Purim story, while self defence, is a difficult part of the narrative for many.
Perhaps these final chapters are just another part of the boisterous, over the top nature of Purim, giving us a controlled outlet for anger so that it doesn’t manifest in actual violence, but I also wonder if the reading of Deuteronomy before Purim isn’t trying to tell us something more, and might help guide us in our response to any aggression, Iranian or otherwise.
Self defence is of course important, and preserving ones life through self defence is absolutely supported in Jewish law. Yet the rallying cry against Amalek could be seen to be calling for genocide and a total wiping out of the enemy. I’d like to suggest this is not what is being asked for, but that we are meant to remember HOW Amalek fought in the battle – attacking the weak and vulnerable – and removing from human memory any practice like this. Rather than demanding we wipe out a particular enemy entirely, we are being asked to wipe out the possibility of anyone remembering such genocide, so that future generations have no reason to recall behaviour such as Amalek’s, and yet still read about it in the annals of history in order to remind them of how NOT to be.
Just as National Holocaust Memorial Day, which fell at the end of January, asks us to remember the Shoah along with other genocides so that society might avoid the same again in the future, perhaps Shabbat Zachor wants us to remember what was done by Amalek so that it shouldn’t happen again, and therefore remove any trace of Amalek-type behaviour from under heaven.