William Hamilton

Handsome in ugly times

Threats to Jewish centers and schools became more viral this week.  Emotional terrorism is feeling very personal.  What can we do?

Two lessons emerge from the two different portions of Torah we learn this Shabbat Zachor.  The special portion of Torah which we read prior to Purim teaches us to both ‘remember’ (zachor) and ‘erase’ (timche) anti-Semitism’s patriarch known as Amalek (Deut. 25:17,19).  How can we do both of these seemingly contradictory things?  Remembering applies to Amalek’s descendants who throughout history and today hate for innumerable reasons.  They malign Jews for being capitalists and communists, separatists and assimilationists, homeless and nationalist, weak and strong.  Alas, any excuse serves the hater.  But erasing applies to us.  We must purge from within our souls traces of Amalek’s toxins.  Even as we lament anti-Semitism’s resurgence, we strive to nurture tender love and generative goodness.  Simultaneously remembering their designs while erasing their residue from within us is a monumental and relentless challenge.   

Fortunately, striving to live morally handsome lives is the focus of our weekly portion of Torah.  The High Priest was to be garbed in vestments whose purpose was to generate honor and beauty (l’chavod, u-l’tifaret) (Ex. 28:2).  That is, to grant honor to God, and beauty designed to stir awe among the people.  Note that the person wearing the robes is not the focus of them.  How can you tell if a person is living a morally handsome life?  When the way they wear their Judaism points not to them but beyond them. 

Fifth graders at the Chicago Jewish Day School had their Tedx conference on being up-standers interrupted by an evacuation in response to a bomb threat this week.  Their learning resumed in earnest immediately thereafter.  Being up-standers in the face of hatred based upon religion or race, gender or ethnicity, is what we are all called to be.  If and when another threat comes, take it personally.  Reach out by texting or emailing a word of support to the targeted organization.  Doing so will make caring palpable and moral handsomeness visible.

Cultivating compassion in a jungle of hatred requires vigilance and resilience.  Mindful of this challenge, hope still dances within us.  People do change.  Nobody is born hating.  Inspiring experiences and warming relationships hold much promise.  May each of us be keepers of that promise.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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