Drash on Parashat Terumah (Zachor)
Rabbi Adi Cohen
Temple David, Perth WA
Amalek - same story, different attitude
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt ... Therefore, when Adonai your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget”.
I love Shabbat Zachor. It challenges me year and year again to confront issues around the need to remember our past while not living in it. A few days later, at Purim, we call out Haman’s name while making noise to erase his memory. There is an ongoing debate about whether, as progressive Jews, we should avoid reading this terrible story, or amend the Megillah to be more ‘family friendly'. On the other hand, we could confront our past ‘as is’ and derive a moral lesson from it.
Storytelling has always been at the heart of being Jewish, of being human. It serves some of our most basic needs: passing along our traditions, learning from our failings, healing wounds, engendering hope, strengthening our sense of community. Because our stories sometimes make us feel vulnerable, exploited, dismissed, or ignored, we have learned to tell them guardedly or not at all. Not all stories are soothing and nice, not all of them have a happy ending. Neighbours, co-workers, and even family members can live side by side for years without learning much about each other’s lives. As a result, we lose something of great value, for the more we know about another's story, the harder it is to hate or harm that person.
As a modern western liberal (yes - and a privileged male) Jew, I cringe at the call for revenge. I cannot accept it as part of my present story. However, it remains part of my people’s story in the past. I would like to suggest that our sages felt the same. In Tractate Sanhedrin 96 b, our sages share a glance into their ethical inner core.
They make it personal, they talk about our experience as one.
“The sages taught in a baraita (a teaching not incorporated into the Mishnah): .... Nebuzaradan was a completely righteous convert. Among the descendants of Sisera (see Judges, chapter 4) were those who studied Torah in Jerusalem. Among the descendants of Sennacherib were those who taught Torah in public. The Gemara asks: And who are they? The Gemara answers: They were Shemaya and Avtalyon. The baraita continues: Among the descendants of Haman were those who studied Torah in Bnei Brak. And even among the descendants of that wicked person, Nebuchadnezzar, were those whom the Holy One, Blessed be He, sought to bring beneath the wings of the Divine Presence and have them convert. The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe: The one who destroyed Your House and burned Your Sanctuary, will You introduce him beneath the wings of the Divine Presence? The Gemara explains: That is the meaning of that which is written: “We have healed Babylonia, but she is not healed” (Jeremiah 51:9, extracted from Sanhedrin 96b).
How can the sons of our worst enemies study Torah and teach Torah? How can the descendants of Haman the Agagite of the Amalekites dwell under the Divine presence?
They can if you don’t try to dehumanise them as the ultimate villains. And that, I believe, is the lesson our sages are trying to teach us.
I love Shabbat Zachor because it reminds me to tell the stories of our past with loving criticism. Just as our Sages did. Not refraining from them nor amending them to be ‘family-friendly’.
It reminds me that the stories of other nations are part of my story, part of our story as Jews.
It reminds me that if I become complacent with our tradition for tradition’s sake, I am silencing my ethical inner voice, the voice of loving criticism and progress.
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful Purim!