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Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 9th Adar II 5776, 19th March 2016
Parshat Zachor – remember Amalek and destroy them – is the precursor of Purim, where we celebrate the destruction of the Persian version of Amalek – Haman. While we look on Purim as a jolly old time and on Zachor as a reminder of things that we might prefer to forget, both of them are fraught with ambiguities. The ambiguities, basically the topsy-turvy nature of Purim, are a source of joy and laughter, while those of Zachor are much more serious. Let’s start with the serious.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt; how he met you on the way, and cut down all the weak who straggled behind you, when you were weary and exhausted; and did not fear G‑d.
We met Amalek in the book of Bereshit – Amalek was the grandson of Esau, and therefore, Chazal say, he was fighting for the first-born rights that his grandpa had sold off or had stolen from him. This claim, among others against us, justified or not, return periodically up to and including this very day.
But Amalek was not seeking justice. Justice is not obtained by attacking and killing the weak, the stragglers, the women and children. Or people who are just going about their daily business. That’s simply evil.
That part of the reading is clear. What the commentators latched onto was the next words: when you were weary and exhausted; and did not fear G‑d. In the sentence, the antecedent of “did not fear God” is not clear. We can say: “He (Amalek) came across you on the way when you were weary…. and he (Amalek) did not fear God”. That’s the usual reading. Or we can read it: “When YOU (Israel) were weary and did not fear God”; in other words, the “did not fear God” refers to Israel. The Hebrew verb can refer to either Amalek or Israel.
What Chazal were trying to say here addresses three problems. One is in understanding this sentence, the second is in understanding why the text tells us to blot out the memory of Amalek – and not to forget, and the third is why Amalek merits such harsh punishment.
The explanation of Chazal is that Amalek is actually two entities. One is the nation called Amalek, whose physical existence today might possibly be proved in specific cases by DNA testing (were we to find one gene that traces back to Mr. Amalek the First, assuming we had a sample of his DNA) – and that is the one whose memory can be blotted out. The other Amalek is in us, in our hearts. This is the one about which we say, “Don’t forget”. He is in you, don’t forget to remove him.
Where does this commentary come from? From the text. The Israelites first encounter Amalek in the book of Shemot, after the Red Sea is miraculously split. The people are in Refidim, there’s no water to drink, the people of course complain and threaten Moshe. God tells him to take his staff, hit the rock – and out comes water. And the place is called masa u’meriva – the place of testing and strife, because the Israelites tried God and asked, “Is God in our midst?” As if there could a question after all the miracles they had seen. And then came Amalek.
So Amalek will live forever. There will always be those who try to destroy us – we are magnets for bigots. The good news is that no matter how battered and bruised we are, we will survive them. But at the same time, being who we are, stiff-necked and unappreciative, there will always be that Amalek in us that goes against what we should know are our best interests. And against this propensity, we have to be especially vigilant, for our own good.
That’s heavy. But this is just the preamble to Purim, that holiday of topsy-turvy where everything goes, nothing is at it seems, and the best way to get through it is by getting drunk.
Let me list a few of the anomalies we find.
King Ahasverus rules 127 states. But he can’t rule his wife, Vashti. He sends out an order that all women should harken to their husband’s words but he can’t take a decision without the guidance of his advisers.
The king has a choice of all the pretty maidens of 127 states and he picks the one, perhaps the only one, who really does not want the position.
The king spends money like crazy – 180 days of party? Do you realize how much food and drink he had to pay for? So he is open to any scheme that will bring in money – like the concession to kill off a bunch of people called Jews for a measly 10,000 pieces of gold. We should have been worth more than that.
Mordechai, that astute student of Persian politics, decides not to bow down to a pompous self-important minister, not realizing or caring that he was endangering his entire people.
Haman is so wily yet so stupid. A little flattery (like being invited to the queen’s party) is enough to dull his usually sharp senses (but that can be said of any man).
Haman sets up a huge gallows for Mordechai. In the end, Haman swings from it, while Mordechai swings in Haman’s house.
Haman comes into the king’s chamber with delusions of grandeur and leaves as a stable boy who has to march his arch-enemy around town, as the arch-enemy fulfills the dream that Haman had for himself.
The king says he can’t rescind an order he has signed, but he can sign another order in total contradiction to the first.
Mordechai has done everything to help the Jews and yet the last sentence of the megillah says that he was accepted by MOST of the Jews. How typical.
We have survived another year of Hamans and henchmen. May our tsouris meet the fate of Haman and his sons and our hopes meet the fate of Esther and Mordechai.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim