Friday, March 2, 2012

Shabbat Zachor - Forgetting, Remembering, Acting

For Congregation Ner Shalom, March 2, 2012

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Zachor. Zachor is Hebrew for "remember." And in fact it seems that this week in the Jewish year, Purim week, is very much about the memorable people you wish you could forget, and a little bit about the forgotten part of you that maybe it's time to remember.

On Shabbat Zachor we read an extra bit of Torah out of order, a snippet of Deuteronomy in which we're told to remember what the tribe of Amalek did to us in the desert. Quick refresher: Amalek was a tribe that attacked the Israelites soon after the Exodus from Egypt. They are hated in Jewish memory for both their character (they attacked from behind, going for the weak and infirm) and for their effect (they made it seem okay for other tribes to attack us).

So our lore condemns them as the worst of fiends, far worse than the very Egyptians who had been our enslavers. Subsequent Jew-haters of note were always lightly or not so lightly considered the descendants of the Amalekites: Cmielnicki, Hitler and, of course, Haman, who is the reason we specially read the Amalekite bit this week. "Blot out their memory from under the heavens," says this portion, finishing with the ironic button, "Don't forget."

The paradox of being instructed to remember to blot out a memory could be the premise of any one of a number of Jewish jokes. In fact, you could easily imagine a Chelm story built on just this premise. Yankel is brokenhearted when Rayzl leaves him. The sages tell him to forget her. But he keeps remembering. So he goes back to the sages who determine that his problem is that he has simply forgotten to forget her and so they have him tie a string around his finger, so that every time he notices it, he can remember to forget her. (In a Chelm story there probably would have to be some additional circular kicker - e.g. that he keeps forgetting to tie the string around his finger and so they hire Rayzl to tie it for him every morning.)

Anyway, on Purim we try to blot out the memory of Haman, the supposed Amalekite. When one mentions his name, the custom is to say yimach shmo - may his name be erased, a custom guaranteed to pretty much do the opposite. Then we drown out his name with noisemakers as we read the story of Esther, as if that could blot out his memory rather than draw more attention to it. And even if there were a chance of forgetting him for a moment, we know that his name will be read 53 times in the megillah next year, and 53 times the year after that. Maybe that is the reason that our custom is to get so drunk on Purim that we can't discern the difference between Haman and Mordecai. If we can't blot out a memory, maybe at least we can blur it.

Because it is, in fact, so hard to let go of the memory of someone you're determined to forget!

My old law school friend Ken Cmiel, whose memory is in fact a blessing, was preoccupied with three guys in our first year class that he called his "hate brothers." I asked him what he meant by that. He explained that he was completely offended by their vile politics and their not-much-better personalities, and that he therefore felt compelled to watch them and their careers over the years to see what they were doing and, perhaps, keep an eye on what harm they were causing. "But what do you mean by 'hate brothers,'" I asked him. "Oh," he replied, "people that you hate so much they're almost family."

And there's truth to that. Trying to forget someone puts you in very powerful and intimate relationship with them. Think of the friend or relative you no longer speak to. Think of how much more psychic space that person takes up in your life than many of the people with whom you're on fine terms!
Similarly, Haman stays at the forefront of our thoughts. He is our hate brother and has become family. We know him. Everything he says. All his motivations. He has moved in and taken a permanent foothold in the Jewish imagination. Jewish children who don't know Aharon know Haman. So much for blotting out his memory. So how do you handle the Haman who won't go away?

A couple weeks ago, after one of my performances in Washingon, DC, I had the opportunity to do a post-show Q&A with the audience. On stage were the members of my troupe and our special guest, Candace Gingrich-Jones, the openly lesbian, openly progressive sister of Newt Gingrich. I asked her what it's like to be siblings with someone who stands for so much that is antithetical to your life and values. And she reflected on how opposites often exist inside of families. There's always the person that you can't have a peaceful political discussion with. It's just that not every family has a presidential candidate in it or television cameras outside.

Candace reflected on how she's given up fighting with her brother about the things that matter to her. Instead, the best she can do is be herself, be honest about her life, and persuade, she hopes, through example rather than rhetoric.

This advice of hers strikes me as especially relevant for Shabbat Zachor. After all, we are not always in a position to blot out our enemies. If Amalek represents the anti-Semitic world, or the hate-mongering world in general, how are we to overcome them? Warfare isn't the option it was 3000 years ago. How are we, then, to respond to Amalek?

The Chasidic masters, perhaps uncomfortable with the venom in these verses, point us inward, to our own hearts. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev says that each person is an entire small world. And Amalek finds expression in each person's power to do wrong. That part of us that will take advantage of another's weakness, that will attack from behind, that will be the first to act dishonorably - or the second or third. The part that, like Amalek, is lacking in yir'at Adonai, fear of God. In other words, the part of us that acts in that very 21st Century way that suggests we're not actually accountable for our actions.

But is it any easier to blot out an internal Amalek? Doesn't the very effort to blot it out turn it into our hate brother? Maybe, as Candace suggests, the best we can do is not to battle it, but to gently educate it until it softens and bends, God willing. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak suggests that the strength we have over our internal Amalek is in the power of the word - our Torah and our prayers. Which I might translate as being our ideas and our ideals. If we stay rooted in love of Torah and prayer, or belief in our ideas and ideals there will be no room for Amalek to control our hearts.

Okay, but what about the real haters out there? Even if the ultimate redemption of humankind could come from all of us cleaning up our hearts, there are living, breathing Amalekites in the world today. There are aggressors and oppressors. Don't we need to act, even if our hearts are still imperfect?

The megillah, the story of Esther, says yes.

Whether or not she was a historical figure, Esther is a marvelous literary one. Why? Because she is like us and can represent us. Physical and flawed. She desires a better life. She conceals inconvenient truths. Her heroism is reluctant. But when destiny calls her, she answers as we hope she would - as we hope we would. Through her beauty, skills and poise she ends up poised to make a difference and save her people from destruction at the hands of the Amalekites of her generation.

But when asked to do this, her answer is not an immediate "yes."

Mordecai begs her to intercede with the king on behalf of the Jews. She objects. The king hasn't called for her in over 30 days, and the penalty for entering his chambers unbidden is death. But Mordecai calls her out in strong terms, saying:

Do not think that in the king's palace you shall escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, then the Jews will be delivered by some other means, but you and your father's house shall be destroyed. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for just such a time as this?

This is quite a message for us and for our time. Because we all have good intentions. We all hate injustice. We all object to so much that is happening in the world. Genocide in Darfur. Oppression in Syria. Economic injustice. Ecological indifference. The erosion of women's hard-won rights. Amalek is out there in many forms. And if we don't speak up? Yes, others might. But will we be saved by leaving the struggle to them? And who knows, maybe we have come to the kingdom for just such a time as this?

Maybe that is the thing that we have forgotten that now we need to remember. We are not here by accident. Either God set us here or we ended up here despite the incredible odds of ever being conceived and born. Either way, in either view, our lives are precious and worthy of purpose. Failing to speak out does dishonor to these lives we've been given.

So let us root hatred out of our hearts; let us root hatred out of this world. Let us fight it with words - with Torah and prayer, with ideas and ideals. Let us persuade it with our good examples of honesty and passion and compassion. Maybe we will prevail. For who knows what any of us is capable of? And maybe that is, in fact, why we have come into the kingdom. And perhaps that is the fact of our existence that we most need to remember, this week and always. So remember. Zachor. Don't forget.


Yael Raff said...

Unforgettable, that's what you are ... Yasher koach!

Irwin Keller said...

My friend Dafna Simon notes that it might not be that we're called to act or speak out or anything differently than we are. Perhaps we are already doing that thing we're in the kingdom to do. Thank you Dafna! Halevai!