But What Will We Do with Ourselves?

(Sermon delivered at Temple Israel of Boston on Shabbat Zachor 5777)

This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance that precedes Purim. On Shabbat Zachor the Jewish community reads a special portion from Deuteronomy, which commands us:

Zachor eit asher asah l’cha Amaleik baderech b’tzeitchem mitzrayim… 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.

Our parasha is saying to us: remember what happened to your people, at the very point at which you were most vulnerable! And when are we supposed to remember this? Our text continues:

V’hayah b’haniach Adonai Elohecha l’cha mikol oy’vecha misaviv……when the Eternal your God grants you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal is giving you as a hereditary portion…

 When are we to remember? When the Eternal haniach l’cha, grants you rest…And when you are in the land that is promised to you… When you’re safe, when you’re sound, when you’re comfortable—that is precisely the time to recall the extremity of your people’s discomfort.

One might think that recalling this “low point” would be most suitable for us when we ourselves have reached rock bottom. This is often the case. On Tisha b’Av, the Jewish holiday recalling the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we read from Lamentations

But here our text tells us that when things are good, recall the bad. So, why? Why not remember Amalek when we’re unsafe? Why not when we’re still on the run – that would make a whole lot of sense.

But no— remember this specifically when you’re protected. Remember this when you are nourished. Remember this when you have a land and a place to live. Well-fed, healthy, and safe at home: that’s the time to remember.

The ideal biblical image of the Promised Land is enchanted by these three states of being—eating, thriving, and not fighting.

In Yuval Noah Harari’s new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari- who is an Israeli historian- shows how for most of human history, the primary concerns of humanity have been famine, disease, and war.

This is remarkably close to the three conditions commanded in our text for when we have to remember Amalek– when you’re in the bountiful land (vs. famine), when you’re thriving (vs. disease), and when when you’re safe from your enemies (vs. war).

But Harari makes a provocative case in Homo Deus about this state of being. When you begin reading his argument it even sounds outrageous. He says, in the broad story of humanity, that describes today. He writes:

At the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up to an amazing realization. Most people rarely think about it, but in the last few decades we have managed to rein in famine, plague and war. Of course, these problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god or saint to rescue us from them. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague and war – and we usually succeed in doing it.

Now, Harari is no intellectual slacker; he is no alt-right pseudo-intellectual pawn. He knows how radical his words sound. Yet, he’s not arguing for a dismissal of these threats at all. He is actually teeing up a far more poignant argument concerning the criticality of the present day. He continues:

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack….

And here is his harshest punch:

Given our twentieth-century accomplishments, if people continue to suffer from famine, plague and war, we cannot blame it on nature or on God. It is within our power to make things better and to reduce the incidence of suffering even further…. [thus the] central project will be to protect humankind and the planet as a whole from the dangers inherent in our own power

So, he asks,

What are we going to do with ourselves?”

That is the single most important question of our time. The future of civilization is a function not of the gods or of nature, but of HUMAN NATURE.

What are we going to do with ourselves?

Not, “what will nature do with us?”

And not “what will they do to us,” as if “we” are somehow on a different planet then “they.” What are we going to do with ourselves?

Ultimately, as Harari elucidates, we are in the most self-determinant moment of human history. We have more facility to shape our “tomorrow” than ever before — for better or for worse.

What are we going to do with ourselves?

Remember what Amalek did to you….

We remember those who came before us. We remember their pain, their struggle. We remember that they were each given only one life.

And that reminds us that we too each have just one life—with a certain number of days, and a certain ultimate choice: What are you going to do with yourself?

We are not onlookers in the unfolding drama of humankind; we are the writers, the actors, the directors.

We are the ones who will choose: What are we going to do with ourselves?

Our choices, as a human race, as a nation, a Commonwealth, a congregation, a family, a human being– our massive aggregation of choices is now the most important variable in the history of the world.

Everyone has choices– everyone.

  • The Witness has the choice to stay silent or be heard.
  • The Insider has the choice to blow bubbles or blow whistles.
  • The politician has the choice to – in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for…” or to use this platinum opportunity to earn the votes entrusted unto them.
  • The journalist has the choice to be brave and heroic to bring the truth to light.

Remember what Amalek did to you! When you personally are not preoccupied by famine, disease, and war– remember! Why then? Because that’s when you’re most vulnerable to forget and play it safe; to forget and choose against justice, against truth.

What are we going to do with ourselves?

We can pursue justice, or we can forget.

We can educate against bigotry, or we can forget.

We can preserve resources, or we can forget.

We can stand up for what’s right or we can forget.

We can speak truth, or we can forget.

We can with love in our hearts, or we can forget.

May we choose to remember what Amalek did to us. And may we answer the question, “What are we going to do with ourselves,” with the words of the prophet Micah:

Do justice, love kindness, and, with humility, walk with God!

About the Author
Matthew Soffer is the Senior Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, where he leads the social justice efforts, practicing congregation-based community organizing with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Matt serves on the Advisory Council of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, the Board of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and the Rabbinic Council of Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
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