Shabbat Zachor: Sending Gifts

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Tetzaveh

Shabbat Zachor

In Tetzaveh we learn laws of the priests and their service in the portable Sanctuary. Shabbat Zachor is right before Purim; we read a special Torah reading and haftarah reminding us of the dangerous nation of Amalek.

“And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, the days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.” (Book of Esther, 9:20-22)

The quote above teaches us not only to observe Purim, but also two central practices of Purim observance: mishloach manot, or gifts of food, and matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor. (Click the links to get further explanation of these mitzvot.)

I draw your attention to these practices- sending gifts- by way of reflecting on the reading for Shabbat Zachor, which begins with the remembrance of Amalek’s attack on the Israelites and continues with the prophet Samuel, in the haftarah, executing Amalek’s king, Agag, as part of Israel’s war against its enemy. These texts are connected to Purim through the figure of Haman, said to be descended from Agag; just as the Amalekites sought Israel’s destruction in its land, Haman seeks Israel’s destruction in exile.

The texts of Shabbat Zachor and even of Purim itself contain shocking violence and are thus a sobering reminder that our world is not always safe nor joyful. Some interpret these readings as reminders of the necessity for Jewish self-defense when Amalek returns; while I don’t disagree that self-defense is one theme of Shabbat Zachor and Purim, I also don’t think it’s the only significant teaching of these passages.

We read above that Mordecai instituted Purim as not a solemn memorial day, but of feasting and sending mishloach manot and matanot l’evyonim, as explained above. To me, these practices- sending portions of food to our friends and family, and giving gifts to the poor- are also critical parts of the message. Precisely because the world can be cruel and unpredictable, our responses must not only be in kind, but also in kindness, creating compassionate communities. Compassionate communities, wherein the poor and lonely are remembered and sustained, will not in themselves stop an Amalek; but self-defense, in itself, will never heal us or the world from the scars that Amalek leaves. Perhaps Mordecai understood that after the people rose up against their enemies, the only way forward was to love each other more, and thus create the possibility that Amalek would be defeated in the realm of values, and not only in battle.

Shabbat Zachor calls us to remember what Amalek did to us, but Purim calls us to act in a way that defeats Amalek more completely: by acting out of our deepest vision of caring community, sustaining and gladdening each other, we show the world a different way of being, and this too is a triumph.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,

RNJL

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