Shabbat Zachor 5779
Rabbi David Steinhardt
March 16, 2019
This coming week is Purim and this Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, introduces an important theme of the festival. Shabbat Zachor is the Sabbath of Remembrance. On it, we recall the cruelty of the ancient Amalekites who attacked our people from behind. They killed women and children. It was a senseless and grotesque act of hatred and violence, and it became paradigmatic of the cruelty we have faced from anti-Semites throughout our history.
On Purim, we read Megillat Esther. This story tells another attempt to destroy our people. It is about a wicked prime minister, Haman, and his report to the king that there is “a certain people….” These people do not have true loyalty to Persia. Rather, their loyalty is to themselves. He is assigned by the king to do what he wants to do to them. The plot leads to a plan for genocide.
We keep this story alive. The outcome is joyous for the Jewish people, but the warnings remain. We have seen throughout history leaders, tyrants, and fools who have sought the destruction of the Jewish people. Of course, the last generation witnessed what seemed to be the ultimate – the genocide of six million of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.
With the birth of the State of Israel and the strengthening of the Diaspora, particularly here, the emphasis on the memory of these destructions became central to Jewish identity. Yet in our comfort and with our strength there is a tendency to deny, and to believe that “it can’t happen here” or “it can’t happen again.” We began to see Amalek and Haman as paradigms of hatred. And often, rather than seeing them as warnings, we spiritualized the stories.
For example, there is a Midrashic understanding that “Amalek exists in each one of us” – as if destruction couldn’t happen again. We reflected inward and thought we need to cleanse ourselves of hatred. But one thing we learn from history is that what was could be again. Therefore, the lessons must be learned. The past serves, not as a predictor for the future, but as a lesson and a warning about the future.
The two stories and their antagonists, Amalek and Haman, represent two types of hatred. The first, Amalek, is totally irrational. It is about the hatred of a people “simply because.” No reason is given. It reflects the existence of evil. There are those who destroy wantonly.
The second story is different. This is a hatred that grows out of jealousy, stupidity, fear of the unknown, desire for power or the threat of losing power. It is the hatred of “the other.” It then bases itself on suspicion and creates an image of the Jew as dangerously powerful, controlling and threatening. Not only on Purim but throughout history, we have seen accusations of Jews controlling banking or governments. Conspiratorial theories place the Jew as the cause of the problems of the nation or the world. Jews aren’t seen as people. There is no distinction made between different types of individuals. No: to be a Jew is to be evil. Haman and his successors want all Jews dead.
History then added other layers to this. In early Christian scriptures and in its theology there is a sense that we are the cause for delay in the second coming of the Messiah. We are associated with the devil. Jesus’ death is depicted as the responsibility of the Pharisees (a Jewish sect) and the Romans are given a pass. If you crucify the one considered to be the son of God and do not believe in his resurrection or that he died for you, you are a problem. Give this theology to simple folks, to those looking for scapegoats and those who want power, and we suffered. We suffered beyond comprehension.
In this space, I cannot possibly cover all the forms of anti-Semitism nor fully describe the horrific treatment we have received throughout history. There is so much more. It is brutal and it is complex.
There is also an irrational element to anti-Semitism. In contemporary times, it became linked to the Jewish people finally going home, establishing an autonomous state. Another form of virulent Jew-hatred began. It did not start in 1967, it started in 1948. This time, not from the Church, but from the Muslim world, who saw us as intruders in our historic homeland. Jews, in this thinking, do not belong in the Caliphate, at least with any political autonomy. And so modern Zionism also became fodder for anti-Semitism.
There is more. Nationalists also hate Jews. Jews hold on to another identity and therefore are a threat. We were, from our beginning, a small people. We were willing to be different. We defined ourselves as “the other,” the ones “from the other side.” We were one of a few religions and peoples that did not want everyone to be like us or believe like us. We didn’t attempt to convert the world, yet we were open to those who wished to join us. We, like others, have this notion of being a “chosen people.” That too creates resentment, particularly when it is misunderstood by Jews and non-Jews alike.
And, I think there is something else. It has to do with what we have done and what we accomplish when we are given the freedom to learn and to engage in research and development, business and governance. When we become partners in the larger society which is open to us, we have shown ourselves capable not only of survival but incredible success. We also become great contributors to others. The downside is that our success causes jealousy and resentment among some because we insist on being different.
I’m disturbed that in these days of such intense political and partisan polarization we have difficulty defining anti-Semitism when it comes from “our side.” The right doesn’t see the dangers and threats of right-wing hatred and the left ignores its dangers. Both are hazardous. Both need to be called out.
Last week I read a piece by a historian on Tablet. She pointed to the responses of Jews in the early 1930’s. Shockingly, there were Jews lead by the Agudah who sided with Hitler. They believed that Hitler and the Nazis would leave them alone as long as they stayed separate. On the left, Jews sided with Stalin. Both turned out to be wrong. Both ignored the important signs.
I bring all this up not only because of the liturgical moments of Shabbat Zachor and Purim but because of the growing threats of anti-Semitism in the world. Europe has become terribly dangerous to Jews. And there is a remarkable spike in nativist anti-Semitism here. There is anti-Semitism coming from the right and the left. They differ, but they are equally dangerous.
I also bring this up because of the statements made by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. She may have been trying to make some point, but she revealed herself three times and used all sorts of anti-Semitic language and references. She falsely referred to our financial control of Congress, the American government and foreign policy. There was an implication that we are not loyal Americans. These accusations are simply lies. And so we react with great upset, anger and, yes, shock. We have heard these “tropes” too many times in our history. And we know that we cannot let them go unchecked. We demand responses. We demand proper responses from her party and the Congress. When leadership mocks difference, debases immigrants and refuses to call out racists and haters, violence ensues.
I bring this up because of a dear member of this congregation who spoke to me about her fears and uncertainty. How do we live in this world? How do we tell our children? I am not being a historian or a politician, yet I do want to bring comfort in this. I learn and share from our tradition.
What do we do? I suggest the following, much of which you have heard.
We need to call anti-Semitism out. We must be careful not to pretend it is not there or that it will go away. And in this country, we need to use all the resources we have to call it out, defend against it and to fight it. We need to avoid allowing it to be politicized. This is not a one-party issue. We must use resources which are found in our agencies and our communities. We need to depend on law enforcement and our judicial systems. We live in America. We need to promote the democracy that we value and the rights and freedoms we cherish.
We must be wise. At the synagogue, we have created a very significant system of security. That is important, and I call on you to support this.
We also need to understand where it is coming from. The anti-Semitism of the white nationalists is different than the anti-Semitism that comes from parts of the Muslim world or far left anti-Israel voices. And we need to distinguish between legitimate critique and pervasive hatred.
Our children? They need Purim. They need to feel good about themselves and proud to be Jewish. We must give them a Jewish life and a Jewish community to be proud of. They need to know that we keep them safe. They need a Jewish life based on hope, on values and on joy. They need to learn about the triumphs of our people, not just from the tragedies. They need to know about our successes and failures.
And, if we choose to be in an open society we need to interact with it. Everyone fears that which they don’t see or know. Last night I was at an interfaith program about immigration. There was a lot of talk about difference, fear, and hatred of the other. Our involvement in this work and in our community is essential. I walked into the room and was greeted both by a Christian and a Muslim who expressed their disdain about the anti-Semitism seen in the past weeks. That was comforting. We are not alone.
But then I woke up this morning and heard about 49 Muslims killed by a white nationalist in New Zealand. And my heart was broken. I wrote a letter to my Muslim friends at a local mosque. We have experienced what they are experiencing – innocent worshippers gunned down by madness.
That leads me to the next idea and it may be found in our next holiday, Pesach. There we remember that we were enslaved because we were seen as a threat to the Pharaoh and his power, his kingship. We worshipped differently and we suffered because of that. But after hundreds of years of slavery and an incredible story of redemption we survived. We survived to tell the story. The story includes the words “In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we were personally redeemed from Egypt.” The meaning is that we keep alive the memory of being “othered,” downtrodden, oppressed. Not so we wallow in pain, but rather so we develop empathy for others. In our society, there is great pain among many who are marginalized because of race, gender, religion, and ethnicity. There are others who suffer more than we suffer. That’s a fact. We can choose to be part of the force of goodness that fights hate. We can be among those whose message is that we feel the pain of our brothers and sisters; that we reject hatred in any form.
Finally, let us draw on the power that comes from the spirit that animates humanity, that has given us the Torah, and that sanctifies life. We can and should live proud Jewish lives. In America, we support the values of freedom and pluralism. We support an Israel that upholds the values of our people and the essence of its foundation as a Jewish democratic state.
We are a particular people with a universal message. If we are not for ourselves who are we? If we are, only for ourselves what are we?
Things are challenging, but our lives are good. For that, we must be grateful. We feel vulnerable but we are strong. For that too we must express gratitude.
May your Purim be joyous! And may your Shabbat be restful.