Drash on Parashat Vayikra (Zachor) 2022

Drash on Parashat Vayikra (Zachor)            

Rabbi Aviva Kipen
Progressive Judaism Victoria

Remember what Amalek did to you ….. don’t forget! (Deut 25:17-19).

With this exhortation, the maftir from Exodus reminds us to be ever vigilant around those whose sly tactics are effective by picking off the weakest, the most vulnerable. Ukraine is not the weakest of the former republics of the USSR, but its geography has made it vulnerable over the centuries to endless claims, owing to its strategic position. In 2010, prizewinning novel The Hare with Amber Eyes [1] brought Odessa’s place in Jewish Ukraine into the spotlight. The wheat trading expertise of the Ephrussi family, the strategic port of Odessa and the vast wealth of the surrounding landscape would come to underpin an eventual empire that would stretch across Europe. But persecution and collapse lurked nearby.

It is Deuteronomy’s endless reminder to anchor our present in an informed awareness of the past that emphasises the heartbreak of this year’s countdown towards Purim, a seemingly light-hearted celebration which packages the prospect of imminent Jewish destruction in ancient Persia as palatably as possible for children. For decades, our movement was uncomfortable with the megillah’s final details of explicit retaliation against enemies whose fatal intentions had not been realised. But the conundrum of when to prevent annihilation rises to the surface, as painful choices must be made between potential escalation to a bigger conflagration and preventing the risk of the occurrence in the first place.

It is impossible to say what Ukraine’s situation will be by the time this item is available online, given that it had to be written for a deadline several days before Shabbat.  However, as the world watches, Russia’s aggression has already taken the lives of many whose names we will never know. For those families who still have relatives in Ukraine, perhaps the names of those who are lost in the military action can be gathered and honoured. Our World Union congregations across Ukraine await relief that is being provided through our movement and other aid organisations, may it arrive speedily. Some are able to flee, others cannot. Even for those who are mobile, it is impossible to predict where relatives might be safest.

Rabbi Dr Charles H. Middleburgh, Dean and Director of Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College - London, circulated the following update about graduates of the college. “Rabbi Yulia Gris and her daughter Izolda, both Russian citizens, moved out from Odessa to Lviv in the west of Ukraine because, as Russian citizens, they were concerned for their safety in the event of a Russian attack. Yulia and Izolda crossed the border on Saturday evening [Feb 26th]. Rabbi Tanya Sakhnovich went to Kyiv to bring her son, who had been working there, home. They were stuck in the city at first but managed to get out with Tanya’s brother and niece. They drove to Moldova. [At] the border [they] found themselves in a massive queue of vehicles with many hours' wait. Tanya, who had done a tv news interview before leaving Kyiv, decided on arrival that the border, officials were not handling the process at all well and wasted no time in telling them how they could do it better! Happily, they agreed and Tanya was able to drive across the border to safety yesterday. We salute Yulia and Tanya for their strength of character and will power.

Our third alumnus, Rabbi Alex Dukhovny, is still in Kyiv, underneath the city, doing his best to look after members of his communities and others sheltering from the Russian onslaught. Alex had flown to London before the invasion but returned to Kyiv and is not intending to leave. We are awed by his bravery, deeply moved by his video messages and continue to pray for his safety and well-being.

At this time of threat and turmoil we pray for the safety of the Ukrainian people, regardless of their faith, and for the end of a terrible, unnecessary conflict. We pray also for family, friends and colleagues in Ukraine, may the day come soon when we can recite Birkat HaGomel together.”

5782/2022 provides a brutal reminder that tyrants may rise in every generation and courage is required to face them. Crimes Against Humanity and arguably Crimes of Genocide are unfolding in Ukraine with each day. Philippe Sands’s East West Street [2] reminds us that the standards for justice have not diminished since the ideological – one might say Talmudic – tussle between those two concepts, as proposed by Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, which remain on the statutes of International Law and human decency.

As we commence the reading of Vayikra this Shabbat, Ukraine is not a “sacrificial offering” to the ambitions of Putin’s Russia. It is just an inconvenience, to be obliterated and to serve as a caution to others. We do not seek a return to the sacrifices detailed in the coming readings of Leviticus in the next several weeks. But we can remind ourselves that sacrifices of many kinds are clearly required to support those who are vulnerable and under attack from the current Amalek. We can only go forward with the exhortation of last week’s affirmation ringing in our ears, so we can face what may come and support all who must endure it at close quarters. May we be strong and may they be strong, in order to strengthen each other in the face of these events. Chazak chazak ve’nitchazek ….. Zachor et Amalek, al tishkach.


[1] de Waal Edmund, The Hare with Amber Eyes, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010 The novel exists as an Audio book and has also been translated into German.

[2] Sands Philippe, East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”, Alfred A Knopf, 2016. This title also exists as an audiobook.

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