Torah from around the world #58
Who will we remember? Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) / Shabbat Zachor 5771-2011
By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy, Congregation Gates of Prayer, Metairie, LA, USA
This is the week that Jews around the world are preparing for Purim. Shelach Manot gifts are ready for delivery. Costumes are prepared. The Purim shpiel is in final rehearsal and muscles are stretched for shaking groggers. Purim is our annual Festival when almost anything goes as we turn our traditions and behavior on their head. From the perspective of my part of the world, it is “Mardi Gras,” but Jewish.
Yet the Shabbat prior to all the merriment has a serious theme. On Shabbat Zachor we remember Amalek and all of his literal and spiritual descendants, inclusive of Haman. The instruction in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 is to remember Amalek and simultaneously blot out his name. Over time we have expanded Shabbat Zachor to recall all those haters and destroyers of the Jewish people from across the ages and into our own time. We readily recall Roman leaders from the Rabbinic period who killed our rabbis, Crusaders who slew Jewish communities in the Rhineland, Inquisitors in Spain, Cossacks in Eastern Europe, those who led the pogroms in Russia and of course Hitler. Yasser Arafat was often included in the mix, then excluded, then brought back. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Osama bin Laden are certainly prime examples in our day. The list is endless.
Indeed we should remember them all, as a self defense mechanism. To be a Jew is to be vigilant, lest a new incarnation arise in our own day. The problem is that all too many cite this Hall of Shame and Villains as the basis of Jewish identity. They say, “We have to be Jews in order to honor the memory of all those victimized before us.” This negative basis influences how we look at the world and those around us. It turns the Hebrew term “goy,” originally a neutral word to describe the nations of the world, into a pejorative, reflecting an “us against them” mentality. Clearly this is not a healthy way to look at the world or inculcate a love of Judaism among our own people.
Thus in keeping with the spirit of Purim, I propose a radical concept. It is in the Book of Esther 9:1, where we read in reference to the King’s original edict to eradicate the Jews, “v’nahafoch hu - and it was turned upside down.” Ever since, Purim has become a time when we appreciate reversals and act in opposite ways. So instead of marking Shabbat Zachor as an occasion to solely remember our enemies and blot out their names, let us also remember our friends, those who have risked themselves on behalf of the Jewish people and honor them. From the Shoah era, we call them “Chasidai Umot Ha'olam - The righteous gentiles of the world,” but there have been others across time. I will name a few, but there are many others who can be mentioned. While sometimes we might question their motives, the end result is what we appreciate.
From the Biblical period we note a number of women: Shifra and Puah, the Egyptian midwives who refused Pharaoh’s order to destroy Israelite babies as they emerged into the world, and Rahab, the righteous harlot, (a phrase one does not see very often, but Purim is coming) who in Joshua 6 shielded the Israelite spies in Jericho. Were it not for King Cyrus of Persia, Judah would not have been re-created nor the Temple rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah.
In the Talmud, we read of the unique relationship between Rabbi Judah Hanasi and Caesar Antoninus with numerous stories of lessons taught and friendship extended. A midrash relating to him states: “Your priests are clothed with righteousness (Psalm 132:9): These are the righteous of the nations of the world, such as Antoninus and his companions, who in this world are as Priests of the Holy One.” (Yalkut Isa. 429)
There would not have been a so-called “Golden Age of Spain” were it not for the kindness and friendship of a number of gentile rulers, like Abdarrahman III and his sons in 10th century Cordova or the Berber kings of 11th century Granada. Pedro the Cruel of 14th century Castile gained his name for the way he treated others, but when it came to the Jews, he was known as El Bueno – The Good, protecting Jews, even executing those who instigated riots against us.
From the 20th century, there are many whom we can remember with appreciation. The name of Orde Wingate is one that is still revered in Israel. A highly decorated British officer, he helped train Haganah forces during the period of the Yishuv. The Shoah was one of the darkest moments in our history, but all the names linked to trees at Yad Vashem remind us of the many who risked their lives for Jews. President Harry Truman rejected the counsel of his advisors to embrace the fledgling State of Israel and Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson championed the cause of Soviet Jewry.
In my little corner of the world, David Duke, former leader of the KKK, linked with neo-Nazis, sought to be Governor of the State of Louisiana. A coalition of decency, Jews and gentiles, people often not involved in politics, coalesced to ensure his defeat.
And let us not forget the many Christian religious leaders who have extended their hands and hearts in sincere friendship to the Jewish people, often apologizing for the past and building bridges to a better future. On a personal level, there are our good neighbors who when we are ill, sincerely light candles and pray for us.
In Sefer Aggadah, quoting P. Berachot 8:9, we read, “When a heathen met R. Ishmael and greeted him with a blessing, R. Ishmael replied: ‘The response to you has already been spoken.’ When another heathen met him and cursed him, he again replied: ‘The response to you has already been spoken.’ His disciples wondered: ‘Master, you replied to the second as you did to the first!’ R. Ishmael responded, ‘But it has been spoken! May those who curse you be cursed. May those who bless you be blessed.’” (Genesis 27:29)
Yes, remember Amalek, curse him and his ilk, but do not allow that memory to blot out the awareness and memory of those righteous souls who throughout history have befriended, supported and at times saved the Jewish people, who deserve to be blessed.