Drash on Parashat Tetzavah (Zachor)
Rabbi Aviva Kipen
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Shabbat Zachor enjoins us to remember what Amalek did to the weak and vulnerable of the Exodus generation. We remember them for their lack of shame in the tactics they employed. In classically Jewish paradox, the means of remembering is the “blotting out” of that name, every time we read the Torah cycle. Yes, we are anticipating the obliteration of the name of Haman in the megillah readings of Purim, but the regular haftarah of Tetzaveh focuses us on the relationship of shame to outcome, as does the special haftarah for Shabbat Zakhor, which replaces it this year.
20th century moral philosophers and educators articulated theories of moral development in which a sense of shame and the capacity to distinguish between one’s own innocence in the case of inadvertent error, brazenness in the face of deliberate wrongdoing and culpability for its consequences, are cornerstones of moral development. These schemas are descriptive and capture what has been known since primitive times. But the delicate boundary between shame – the capacity to discern and respond to it appropriately – and humiliation is a delicate one.
Early German language childrearing texts describe systematically breaking the will of the child, in order to assert “proper” morality. Reading Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child (1979) provides the blue print not only for breaking individual children, but - by extension - whole populations and is chilling reading. But our ancient prophet Ezekiel had no need of character breaking, as he focused the people on the losses wrought upon them as a consequence of their sinfulness.
Ezekiel 43:10 instructed mere mortals to recount (hagged) the house of Israel (et beit yisrael) the Temple (et habayit). The smallness of the individual’s membership within the household of Israel, by comparison to the greatness of the glory of the Temple they had created to God’s specifications, is affirmed – not by the instruction to link shame for sinfulness with a breaking of character by harsh humiliation, but rather by reference to the plans and rites of tangible greatness, which the Holy Temples represented in their respective centuries.
We measure ourselves in each generation against the Amalek of each generation. Without a physical Temple plan against which to check our cubits and hand-spans of successes and shortcomings, we must seek other measures.
Despite the efforts of some who pray for a Temple in which kohanim may be consecrated and serve, nevertheless the House of Israel has not worshipped in a bayit for 2000 years. Whilst we venerate the instructions of the parasha, which details the garb and consecration of the kohanim, and identify those who are ready to return to active service if the opportunity arises, post-Temple Judaism has served well for 2000 years in less magnificent physical structures.
Even if ashamed of our separate and collective shortcomings, we have still had recourse to the best alternatives to which we could aspire. In all our humble and yet remarkable diversity, the Jewish “storehouse of the soul” has been not the Temple, but “The Source” has been our repertoire of holy texts, which have been carried to every corner of the world even by those crushed under humiliation and despite the martyrdom of millions.
Our “Fortress” for millennia has been the gathering of “the house of Israel (et beit yisrael)” in its synagogues, the houses of study where the capacity to build a holy household has saved us from Amalek in each century since Ezekiel’s injunction. We can’t offer Olot or Shelamim anymore and neither do we in the Progressive Movement seek to. But … perhaps the prayers … of those who kept the flame of hope alive …upon their altars … bequeathed us life.
(Poem by Chaim Nachman Bialik, lacking its opening paragraph, can be found in Gates of Repentance p 426-427.)