Thursday, March 10, 2022 – ז׳ אַדָר ב׳ תשפ״ב
זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם :אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִים: ( דברים כ״ה:י״ז-י״ח)
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18)
There is no Hebrew word for history. I know, in Hebrew we say “היסטוריה” but that is merely an adaptation of the Greek word ἱστορία (historia) which is the inquiry and knowledge acquired by investigation of the past. We often use the word Toldot/תולדות to explain a lineage and who came after whom, and the term דברי הימים/Divrei HaYamim symbolizes a chronicling of transpired events.
But neither of those terms quite capture the notion of history, which is why we, as Jews, use another term more than any other in recalling the past: זכרון/Zikaron. Memory.
This Shabbat we mark Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat of Remembering. The Shabbat before Purim has been called Shabbat Zakhor in order to remember what happened to us in our collective past. Its focus, yes, is on the atrocities committed against us by the quintessential antisemite, Amalek, whose descendant is of course the villain Haman. Despite Purim’s emphasis on joy and frivolity, the Shabbat before opens on a somber note commanding us to remember atrocities against us from Amalek to Haman to Hitler. Its message is clear: Jews are pledged to work for the end of oppression of the weak everywhere. A temporary, partial victory should not blind one to the persistence of evil in the world.
Memory is a funny thing. It can be selective, repressive, motivational, and paralyzing all at once. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg teaches that “Zakhor [remembrance] is a mitzvah that has made modern Jews uncomfortable. The natural desire to forget and be happy collides with the ongoing pain of memory and analysis. … Modern people, who are future-oriented, stress the need to forgive. They argue that there will be no reconciliation as long as the memories of the cruelties and atrocities of the past are preserved and thrown in the face of those involved. “Forgive and forget” becomes the slogan.
The opportunity of starting new in North America meant for so many Jews the ability to start over and free themselves from our traumatic past. And on the Zionist side, writers such as Micah Yosef Berdyczewski and Yosef Haim Brenner wanted to create a blank slate as New Jews forging a new identity in an ancient land. Both wanted to let go of memory and detach from the past.
The great professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in his landmark book “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory” recalls that Jews essentially stopped chronicling their history for almost 1500 years after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. They focused solely on memory: the memory of destruction – of the Temple, of Jewish society, and of sovereignty in our Land. He explains “why even when the dam of Jewish historiography was broken, in the centuries following the Spanish expulsion of 1492, a vexed relationship between Jewish memory and Jewish history endured.”
The primary lesson of Parashat Zakhor [the special section of the Torah read on that Shabbat] is that true reconciliation comes through repentance and remembrance. Confronting the evils of the past is the most powerful generator of moral cleansing and fundamental reconciliation.
But that cannot be the only lesson. The insight-turned-cliché here is that we not only confront the past but take action against the current manifestations of Amalek whenever and wherever they present themselves.
As Russia invaded Ukraine, I found myself overwhelmed with posts and messages from friends and colleagues who connected to this crisis through their personal, familial, and communal memory. Pictures and stories of Pesach seders led throughout Ukraine’s cities and villages, visits with its communities and leaders peppered my feed. Stories and accounts of free American Jews as descendants of Ukrainian-Jews. Stories poured in of the rich contributions to Jewish life that come from the shtetls and cities of this vast country and are now under attack. From the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav to Tchernichovsky, Bialik, Jabotinsky, and Golda – reminding us that much of the modern Jewish story came from the Ukrainian landscape.
I too spent time in Ukraine leading Pesach seders with my friends and colleagues Rabbis Erin Mason and Isaac Saposnik, and leading a summer camp with my home community, Temple Beth Israel of Skokie, IL. We built a connection with the Northeastern Ukrainian community Konotop and maintained the relationship for many years.
My Friend Ilya Bezruchko grew up in Konotop, Ukraine, and is the grandson of the late Grisha Aizenshtat z”l, who was the leader of the community. I knew Ilya as a young kid when we visited the community and now, he is helping to coordinate efforts from abroad with local communities and volunteers in liaison with HIAS in Ukraine, the Afya Foundation, and the Reform Movement. Despite living in Kyiv, he is now in Lviv with his wife and son, while his mother remains in Russian-occupied Konotop unable to leave.
Ilya expressed the following to me in a text message:
“Now the main help is to force Israel, as a State, not to stay aside from the whole war in Ukraine. I understand their concerns regarding Syria and Russian Jewry, but on the other side of the scale are the lives of Ukrainian Jews… So if it is possible, try to send the message from our community to Israeli authorities.”
Israel must remember that naivete and amnesia always favor the aggressors, the Amalekites in particular. The Amalekites wanted to wipe out an entire people, memory and all; amnesia completes that undone job. Naiveté leads to lowering the guard, which encourages attempts at repetition. One of the classic evasions undergirding naivete is the claim that Amalek is long since gone. Only “primitive” people are so cruel, only madmen or people controlled by a Svengali/Hitler type would do such terrible things. The mitzvah of Zachor is a stern reminder that Amalek lives and must be fought.
Ilya recently penned a powerful message in Haaretz:
“We speak all the time about “Never again,” but what do words mean when Russia defiles the thousands of dead Jews of Babi Yar and Israel still stands aside from confronting them and sidesteps what it has always declared an unbreakable duty towards Jews in need?
We in Ukraine are in need now: we are witnesses to a moral and humanitarian catastrophe here. The Talmud tells us: ‘Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.’ It’s not too late for Israel to remember it.”
Last Saturday night we learned that PM Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow to be an interlocutor between the Haman of the Kremlin and the Jewish freedom fighter and current hero Vladimir Zelenskyy. PM Bennett must embrace the twofold lesson of Zakhor:
- We do not have the luxury of being naïve and as in the Purim story, we must both speak truth to power and sometimes whisper strategic messages in the ears of the ‘powerful’ to get them to lay down their swords.
- Purim is one of the few times in our history in which we are both threatened with genocide and in our triumph commit mass murder (see Esther 9:15-18). This too is a “Zakhor” moment when we have considerable reason to tip-toe carefully around the volatile geopolitics and know that both our people and people in general are crying out in the face of clear and present danger.
Zakhor is about power. And the perceived power of a Jewish Prime Minister wheeling and dealing on the world stage is both profoundly intriguing and a bit nerve-wracking. To paraphrase Anshel Pfeffer, this moment reminds us that there is nothing normal about Jewish power AND that there is nothing inherently immoral about it either. On the contrary, in the shadow of the Holocaust and the overnight invasion from one sovereign country into the next, no other form of power could be more moral.
When these current events and challenging realities become memories, will we look back and say that we did the right thing. As we look back at our past and evaluate our unique position, the book of Esther offers the most powerful lesson: Don’t be silent and use your power for good.
כִּ֣י אִם־הַחֲרֵ֣שׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי֮ בָּעֵ֣ת הַזֹּאת֒ רֶ֣וַח וְהַצָּלָ֞ה יַעֲמ֤וֹד לַיְּהוּדִים֙ מִמָּק֣וֹם אַחֵ֔ר וְאַ֥תְּ וּבֵית־אָבִ֖יךְ תֹּאבֵ֑דוּ וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ אִם־לְעֵ֣ת כָּזֹ֔את הִגַּ֖עַתְּ לַמַּלְכֽוּת׃ (אסתר ד:יד)
“…if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:14)
And maybe once Prime Minister Bennett successfully negotiates with Russia and Ukraine, he can focus on a much tougher nut to crack – negotiating with leaders of Israel’s Haredi parties around the Kotel deal!
Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach!