Shabbat Zachor

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Zachor

This week we have a special reading on Shabbat; in addition to the regular Torah
portion, Tetzaveh (mostly about the garments of the priests), we have the
observance of Shabbat Zachor, which is always right before Purim. On Shabbat
Zachor- which means “rememberance”- we read a maftir, or concluding Torah
reading, from Deuteronomy 25, which recalls how Amalek, a warlike nation,
attacked the stragglers of the Israelites on their way out of Egypt.

Years later, when the Israelites have settled in the land, the prophet Shmuel
[Samuel] commands king Shaul [Saul] to attack Amalek and utterly destroy it, all
the people and all their property. Shaul wages the war, and wins, but lets the
troops keep the spoils of war, and Shaul himself spares the Amalekite king,
Agag. Shmuel condemns Shaul as disobedient and announces that God has chosen
another to be king, and dispatches Agag with his own hands.

The haftarah for Zachor links the earlier stories of Amalek with the Purim
narrative, in which the ancient enemy turns up as Haman the Agagite, a
descendant of Amalek. Yet the haftorah presents great moral problems, not the
least of which is this: can it really be that the God who commands us to care
for widows, orphans and strangers commands scorched-earth warfare against even
innocent non-combatants, children and animals? How is it possible that our
tradition endorses a text which seems to suggest that the children of an evil
nation are to be included in collective punishment? It goes against every
ethical instinct which might be inculcated by the very texts in which this story
appears!

It’s not an easy story, and perhaps, in the end, that’s the point. Those who
reject warfare against Amalek- in whatever form it takes in our generation- are
responsible for the blood on Amalek’s hands. (Remember, Amalek’s attack was
precisely on the weakest and most defenseless.) Yet those who would wage warfare
too easily end up like Shaul, with his moral credibility in tatters because he
disobeyed and allowed the army to take the animals as spoils of war- but did not
disobey in order to spare the women and children. Some commentators say that
Shmuel commanded Shaul to wipe out the entire nation precisely to make it clear
that this was a war against evil- any taking of booty or treasure might lead to
the conclusion that it was a war like any other, caused more by greed than
justice.

So what do we do with this difficult text? We sit with it, and allow ourselves
to be confronted with the messy truth that violence is sometimes necessary to
achieve a more just and safe world, but it’s equally true that those who use
violence for these ends often achieve neither justice nor safety. We must fight
Amalek, understood here as that part of the human soul which preys on weakness
and fear- but we must not become Amalek in the process, lest future generations
have a queasy feeling about our deeds the way we might when reading of Shaul’s.

This, to me, is precisely the greatness of a serious encounter with our sacred
texts: we are not given easy answers, but harder questions. Our march toward
frivolity on Purim night is preceded by stark contemplation of what good people
must do to confront evil, without becoming evil themselves.Yet even in a world
with such haunting questions, we can make room for the great joy awaiting us on
Purim, just a few days away, which brings the radical message of great joy
outlasting the darkest fears.

with blessings for a joyous Purim,

RNJL

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