This coming Shabbat will mark our annual observance of Shabbat Zachor, so named because of its command to remember the treachery of ancient Amalek against the Israelites. Shabbat Zachor is always observed on the Shabbat before Purim, since tradition teaches that the evil Haman was a descendant of Amalek.
As I have done for many years, I spent a few moments talking about this particular observance and its meaning with my Hebrew High School class. For as long as I’ve been a teacher of Jewish tradition, I have worked hard to avoid falling into the trap of teaching my students- young or old- to see an anti-Semite around every corner. It seems to me a terrible way to live one’s life as a Jew, and leaves very little space for the joy of living that is so central to Rabbinic Judaism as I understand it. If you really believe that everyone in the world hates you, why should Judaism be expected to be appealing? I can’t answer that question for myself, and I really don’t want to use my influence on the young minds entrusted to me to make them feel that way. I want them to want to be Jewish- not to view it as a burden.
That said, Shabbat Zachor in 2010 seems to have a chillingly ironic twist to it. As with Haman of old, once again a Persian ruler seems, if we are to believe his rhetoric, to be bent on destroying Jews (he says Israel, but that’s the oldest trick in the book). Unlike the Book of Esther and our comic and satirical celebration over the ancient threat, it is not at all clear how the current one will play out. Israel today is, of course, much stronger than the ancient Jews of Shushan were. It can take care of itself. But they are keenly aware of the dangers of using force, and with the rest of the world seemingly content to go ever so slowly in sanctioning Iran, the government of Israel- and it’s people, I think it’s safe to say- see the threat against them as an existential one.
Separated by thousands of years of history, the origins of Purim and its observance today seem eerily similar.
There is a certain amount of pain for me that in having to discuss these distressing realities with my students. It forces me to admit to them that, though it is hardly true that every non-Jew is an anti-Semite, it is undeniably true that it is still possible in this post-Auschwitz world to spout the most obscene forms of anti-Semitism and yet be a head of state invited to address the General Assembly of the United Nations, or a graduate forum at Columbia. Why is that, I ask myself? How can that possibly be?
I remember learning from the work of Piaget that the challenge of speaking to a child about anything is that you have to understand it yourself first. Once you do, then you can work on translating it into age-appropriate concepts. But if you don’t, the chances are that what comes out won’t be worth too much.
I suspect that, in talking about Shabbat Zachor this year, Piaget might not have appreciated my answers all that much. But really- how does one understand anti-Semitism in this most modern and advanced world, almost sixty-five years after the end of the Nazi era? I don’t pretend to understand it, even as I refuse to let it suffocate me- and my students- in a haze of neurosis.
I can’t help but have the feeling that we are commanded to remember Amalek lest we fall prey to Santayana’s gloomy prophecy- that those who forget history are destined to repeat it. I don’t think we can really celebrate on Purim without having a Shabbat Zachor first. But making memory work for us without disabling us is the unique legacy of the modern Jew…