Steven Moskowitz

Ancient Problems, Modern Answers

Shabbat Zachor is the Sabbath of Remembrance. This day is assigned to the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim. On this Shabbat we are commanded to remember what the Amalekites did to the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. The Torah states: “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. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) Why is this read prior to Purim? Because the tradition argues that Haman was a descendant of Amalek. There is a thread that connects all our enemies.

One generation’s evildoers are descended from the prior generation’s. The wickedness is the same. The battle is eternal. Leon Wieseltier argues: “All violence is not like all other violence. Every Jewish death is not like every other Jewish death. To believe otherwise is to revive the old typological thinking about Jewish history, according to which every enemy of the Jews is the same enemy, and there is only one war, and it is a war against extinction, and it is a timeless war.” Antisemitism is, I fear, eternal, but not every antisemite is Haman. Today’s enemies are not the Nazis. The situation is different. The problem is real. The threat is great. Still 2015 is not 1938. There are differences.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak to Congress. While I remain deeply worried that this speech will do the opposite of what is hoped for and will instead harm the US-Israel strategic alliance, I do believe that Netanyahu better understands the threat Iran represents. President Obama appears naïve about Iran’s intentions. I have said this on many occasions, but it should be repeated. History has taught us that we must take antisemites at their word. When they say they intend to do us harm we must believe them. When they say, as Iran’s leaders do, that they wish to destroy Israel, we must not apologize for them and fantasize that they do not really mean what they say. Still Wieseltier’s cautionary note is telling. Khamenei is not Haman. 2015 is not 1938. Obama is not Chamberlain. Netanyahu is not Churchill.

There are differences. Let me focus on one. Today there is a sovereign Jewish state, the State of Israel. Zionism is of course about the realization of our age old dream, to be a free people in our own land. It is also about transcending history. We will write our own story. We will no longer be victims. We are no longer dependent on the whims of foreign rulers. My teacher Tal Becker often speaks about our tendency to fall back to a ghetto state of mind. We are only able to view today’s events, and tomorrow’s threats, through the prism of past atrocities. Then we were small, not so much in numbers but rather with regard to our outlook. My teacher argues that we must enlarge our thinking and develop a sovereign state of mind. We must think not like we are still living in tiny shtetls but as a people who have a sovereign state. Today requires different thinking.

This does not mitigate the threat. There are far too many people who wish us dead. But it opens up the doors for dealing with today’s threat different than yesterday’s. Seeing today through history’s tropes allows for only one choice, and one story. We must blot their name out from under heaven. That is of course the worst curse one can say of someone according to our tradition: y’mach shmo—may his name be blotted out; may their memory be destroyed. Let them be forgotten. And yet, I can only say such a thing when I look backward not when I look ahead.

There are people today who destroy the relics of past generations. In Iraq the followers of ISIS destroy the extraordinary beauty of once great civilizations. It is as if to say, we will wipe out even their memories. I do not wish to do the same. Remembrance is a virtue. Our tradition is built upon the word: zachor—remember. Remembering even our enemies is what this Shabbat is dedicated to. We reflect on the past. We learn from our tradition.

And yet we must not live in our remembrances alone. Perhaps in the synagogue’s holy sanctuary we can inhabit the small world of sacred history.   Our political leaders must not live within these confines. They must work to transcend history. They must endeavor to write a new story. That is the most important teaching of Zionism. History is now in our hands. If we believe otherwise we are destined to relive what we recall this week. If we believe otherwise then every enemy will indeed be Amalek and every antisemite Haman. It is not 1938! We are no longer a minority living in a hostile land. There is a sovereign Jewish nation. It is the State of Israel.

I wish that Netanyahu would not come to Washington (at least not this close to the Israeli elections). I wish he would speak instead from Jerusalem. I wish he would stand alongside leaders from other Knesset parties: Herzog, Livni, Bennett and Lapid and say, “I speak to you from Jerusalem, the capital of the modern state of Israel. I speak to you as the Prime Minister of Medinat Yisrael. Although this is an ancient city rooted in my people’s history and also the history of Christians and Muslims, today it is a modern city. We have returned to this city to rebuild our people and to resurrect our dreams. Our destiny is now ours to write. We continue to dream of peace not just for my people, the Jewish people, but for all people. We dream of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Let me be forthright. We cannot afford to give those who agitate for our destruction the tools with which to make that happen. Whether it is Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran who rise up against us we will defend ourselves. We hope and pray that the world will stand by us. If not we are prepared to defend our state and fight for the lives of our citizens. We fight for better lives. We work so that tomorrow will offer a different story for our people. That is the task entrusted to all of Israel’s leaders. We stand united. Stand with us!”

I am sure Tuesday’s speech will be much longer. Still those are the contours I would wish for. I wish he would speak as if today is not yesterday.  I wish Prime Minister Netanyahu would speak as if tomorrow is in our hands and that Israel’s fate, and by extension the Jewish people’s, is not determined in Washington but in Jerusalem. And that is why today is so much different than our historical remembrances. We can continue to speak as if it is the same. That is the pull of tradition, but it is a tradition written from a world view that Zionism rejected. Or we can cast aside yesterday’s tug and write something new and different. That is my dream. Tomorrow’s history will not be yesterday’s story. Leon Wieseltier teaches: “Israel was not created to destroy Amalek. Israel was created to deny Amalek.”

In this past week’s portion we read about the ner tamid, usually translated as the eternal light. (Tetzaveh; Exodus 27:20) But that is a mistranslation. It would be better to translate this as the “always light.” Eternal implies that the light is something that burns despite our efforts. No matter what we do the light burns. “Always” however suggests that we must tend to the light. There is human agency. We must always keep the fires burning.

Likewise we can view history as eternal. We can see evil in general, and antisemitism in particular, as eternal and immutable. Or we can see it as something different in each and every generation, something that we must always battle, but also something that requires different solutions than yesterday. My children’s struggle with this problem will be different than my own. My generation’s answers need not be similar to prior generations of Jews.

My answers, my responses, hinge on something so different and so unimaginable to prior generations of Jews. My great grandparents could not have imagined today’s reality. The antisemitism we still confront they would surely understand but the sovereignty we now enjoy would be unintelligible to them. Today, there is a sovereign Jewish state. That provides me with great hope. Today there is a possibility for a different story. And all of us can be a part of writing that history. Today the tradition’s words: Zachor et Amalek—remember Amalek might not be a command but in fact a curse. Today there is the possibility, the glimmer of promise, that we will not be cursed to live the same history as our ancestors.

And for me that is all I need to keep the fires of hope always burning. Tomorrow can indeed be different than yesterday!

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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