Tetzaveh/ Shabbat Zachor: Remembrance of the Present

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh / Shabbat Zachor

Good morning!

It’s just a day before Purim, which means tomorrow is Shabbat Zachor, or the “Shabbat of Remembering,” which means there will be a special concluding Torah reading and a special haftarah.  These texts, always read on the Shabbat before Purim, tell of Israel’s war wit Amalek, the lawless people who attack the Israelites on their way out of Egypt. We are told in the Torah reading to always “remember” [zachor] to wipe out the memory of Amalek, hence the name Shabbat Zachor. Hundreds of years later, the first King of Israel, Shaul, was given the command to wipe out the Amalekites- man, woman, child and animals- but spares the Amalekite king as well as much of their riches.

This act- sparing the king and some of the animals- costs Saul his kingship, and sets up a connection with Purim (Agag, the Amalekite king, is the ancestor of Haman.) One might say that the texts of Shabbat Zachor remind us of the historical challenges of Jewish security; some believe that Jews must always remember there could always be an Amalek, or a Haman, just waiting to strike. The texts of Shabbat Zachor, and the Megillat Esther, or scroll of Esther, could be seen as teaching the historical imperative of Jewish self-defense. After all, at the end of Megillat Esther, the Jews rise up against those who would have attacked them and kill tens of thousands of their enemies in a preemptive strike.

Yet many readers are deeply troubled by Samuel’s order to Shaul to wipe out the Amalekites, including the children and even the animals. Such brutal warfare, punishing the innocent for the sins of their ancestors, seems out of place in a religious system that insists on justice and due process. (See, for example, Abraham’s famous argument with God over the innocent of Sodom.) Such questions become even more urgent in an age of genocide directed against Jews (and Armenians, and Tibetans, and Rwandans- the list goes on.) How can we possibly hold as a sacred text one which condones the massacre of an entire people, along with animals and property?

Perhaps one way to redeem the texts of Shabbat Zachor is by seeing them not as texts about them, but about us. Yes, Jews (and civilized people generally) must be vigilant about those who would harm us, and yes, sometimes innocent people die in defensive wars. It’s also true that if we are troubled by what the texts says happened in the past, we must remember that such acts happen now, in our day, and not only by countries or groups we might consider lawless or aggressive. Let’s remember that the United States is engaged in warfare on several continents, and unknown numbers of innocent men, women, and children have died in drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps other countries as well. Drone strikes are sometimes targeted on the basis of activities deemed suspicious from the air, but in some cases bombs dropped on villages and houses kill civilians, including children, as well. (Please see the websites of the NYU Law School drone project  and ProPublica’s comprehensive collection of known information about this semi-secret war for more information. Just hit the links. You’ll probably be amazed.)

I am neither endorsing nor condemning the Administration’s war actions in various countries; I am merely pointing out that we, too, currently take the lives of children when we as a country believe it to be necessary. Our moral revulsion at the violence in Biblical times should be tempered by introspection about the moral state of our own times; at the very least, reflection on how to fight Amalek should require that every citizen become knowledgable about what is being done in our names. On Purim, we rejoice in Jewish victory, but we also reflect on the ethical dilemmas of being a free people in a brutal world. The texts of Shabbat  Zachor call us to remember not only the past, but the present as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

1 Comment »

  1. Chaim said

    Dear Neal,
    Every word you say is quite accurate. But as your essay develops, I get the sense that you are conflating the inadvertent wartime killing of civilians with genocide. The two are vastly different.
    In war, civilians get killed. Sometimes it’s unintended, as when Israeli troops kill Palestinians who are deliberately placed next to military targets. Sometimes the killing of civilians is very much intended, as when Palestinian terrorists try to kill as many Jews as they can.

    But the command to wipe out Amalek is a command to commit genocide. Happily, we Jews have left that notion behind millennia ago (and we’re not particularly proud that it appears in our ancient text). Genocide, unfortunately, IS on the agenda of some nations today.

    In sum, drones are one thing. Genocide, a lå Ahmadinejad for example, is quite another thing. Personally, I wouldn’t discuss the two in the same breath.

    Finally, you wrote that this is a “more serious” reflection on Shabbat Zachor. I’m wondering — more serious than…what? Shabbat Zachor is not to my mind anything to be in the least bit un-serious about.

    Shabbat shalom and happy Purim,
    Chaim Listfield

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