This Shabbat is Parashat Tetzaveh/Zakhor. After last week’s instructions on how to build the Tabernacle housing the Ark of the Covenant, the Menorah and other cultic accoutrements, we read this week of the clothes of the Kohen HaGadol (High Priest) and the sacrificial altar, and the process for ordaining priests. Because Haman is said to have been a descendant of the Amalekites, who attacked the weak and straggling from behind when we left Egypt, we read on the Shabbat before Purim the contradictory command never to forget to blot out the memory of Amalek. Shabbat Zakhor often coincides with Parashat Tetzaveh.
Many times over the years I have presented several ideas about the priestly vestments and the command never to blot out the memory of Amalek.
- The breastplate worn by the High Priest contains 12 different precious or semi-precious stones, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Each is unique, but a shared essence unites them.
- The breastplate kept all the tribes close to the heart of the High Priest. We need to ask ourselves who we keep close to our hearts. Are we limited to the tribes of Israel, or is all humanity to be found on our breastplate? Can we both celebrate our uniqueness as Jews, and appreciate what unites us with all humanity?
- Rashi teaches that we are taught not to use unjust weights and measures just before Deuteronomy recalls how Amalek attacked us, because when we act in an unjust and discriminatory manner, we open the door to Amalek. The rabbis expanded the prohibition against unjust weights and measures to include all forms of unjust double standards.
- Whether or not we believe that descendants of Amalek still exist, Amalek like behavior certainly does. Last year I quoted from Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch extensively, and I wish to do so again:
The previous mitzvah (Obligation to use just weights and measures) completes the ideal picture of the Jewish people as a people that distances itself from all injustice, from any exploitation of the advantage of one person over another, even if this is only a temporary advantage. Members of this people will not exploit the trust of one person in another, without which people cannot live together in community. They have faith that Adonai is their God only if they reject and fear any injustice towards God’s creatures. From this flows unbridled justice and honesty in business between people. These were the final lines that with them the Torah drew the picture of the character of the people named after it and guided by it. The national character of this people is characterized by empathy with the feelings of others, consideration, generosity and loving kindness for every living thing….
Justice and loving kindness are woven into the nature of this people. It is required to see its power and future only through loyally carrying out its obligation, and it will be among the nations until carrying out this obligation will be the vision of all humanity. …
After Israel was given this task, it now comes to the Land of the Torah in order to carry out the commandments associated with the Land. …We are told that the struggle with the characteristics of Amalek until they are totally defeated is God’s historic guiding principle on this earth. Here Israel is required to see itself as the instrument that participates in God’s War with Amalek. The laurels of the fame and glory of Amalek mislead people and blind them by their brightness. The last leaf will drop from this wreath when the power of Amalek will collapse. Amalek will be defeated “Not by a sword stronger than Amalek’s, but by the power that is only in God, as manifest through faithfully fulfilling the obligation to carry out God’s Torah of morality.
Blot out the memory of Amalek
Not Amalek, but the memory and fame and glory of Amalek. This endangers the moral future of humanity. As long as the history books will glorify military heroes…as long as people will want to emulate them.
Don’t forget a thing if the day will come when you will want to be like Amalek, and like Amalek you won’t want to remember your obligations or to know God, but will look for the opportunity in small or big matters to exploit your advantage to harm other human beings.
Don’t forget this when the day will come, and you will want to rid yourself of your role and mission as the Jewish people that you accepted among humanity. Don’t envy the laurels of those that the world of foolishness gives to those who are happy when they sacrifice the happiness of other human beings. Remember the tear drenched land that cultivated those laurels.
Don’t forget this when the day will come when you will adapt the uncouthness and violence of Amalek. Stand tall and preserve your humanity and the value of justice you learned from your God. They are the future. In the end, humaneness and justice will prevail over uncouthness and violence. You were sent to herald and bring this future closer through your fate and your example—this victory and this future.
We have already been taught several weeks ago, at the very end of Parashat Yitro, that the altar we recall this week must be built without the use of metal instruments, because metal also is used for swords, the antithesis of what the altar represents. Rabbi Hirsch taught that the “vav” (and) opening the following portion, “V’Eleh mishpatim (These are the laws) is intended to connect the laws in Parashat Misphatim with the prohibition against the use of metal instruments at the conclusion of Parashat Yitro because “In the previous verses the Torah deals with the building of the altar, that symbolically expresses the basic principle ‘Our entire relationship with God must be understood in a way that creates a mighty and unassailable basis for building a just and humane society, and to strengthen every individual in the spirit of morality and modesty. For this reason the “vav” connects between the laws that will govern the building of Jewish society through the principles of justice and humaneness. This pushes away the ‘sword” – violence and cruelty out of the Jewish state, and only then will we be worthy to build in our midst an altar to God. Therefore, the laws in Parashat Mispatim come before the building of the Tent of Meeting.”
Let’s bring all these teachings together. We are taught to remember Amalek not just to be on our guard against the enemy from without, but also to be wary of the enemy from within. The realities of founding and maintaining a country offer many temptations to abandon our values, or even to believe that there is a contradiction between our values and survival. Living as we do in a reality where the sword has been an unfortunate necessity for building and maintaining the State of Israel, we must be constantly vigilant that we do not glorify the way of the sword or lionize those who wield the sword. We must hold all humanity close to our hearts, and not treat anybody with unjust double standards – neither fellow Jews, nor non-Jews. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that Amalek like use of our power over those weaker than us is justified in the name of survival. We may survive physically, but we will not survive as Jews, and we will have abandoned our God commanded mission in this world.
May our recollection of Amalek this Shabbat strengthen our resolve to fight both for our physical and spiritual survival.