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Parashat Zakhor: Facing Uncomfortable Truths

The Grogger, used to 'blot out the name of Haman'. (Image ajudaica.com)

When your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:19)

It is a Biblical commandment to annually recite these words on the Shabbat proceeding Purim, and to recall what the Amalekites did to us upon leaving the land of Egypt.  Unprovoked, they attacked the Jewish encampment in the wilderness at their most vulnerable point, tired and weary.  But why? For the Amalekites and their ilk, perhaps the sin of the Israelites was not anything they did, but who they were.  They could not value the people, their strange ways, their Torah, or their God.  For this reason, there can be no peace, because no peace can be made with one committed to your destruction.

In the verses, an essential tension is revealed, for to erase the memory of the Amalekites from under the heavens is simultaneously to remember this primal trauma every year; one cannot erase that which has already been forgotten.  In this point, a more insidious dimension of the violence of Amalek exposes itself.  On one level the Amalekites committed unprovoked violence against the Israelites’ body, but they also struck to the core of their sense of identity and self, in the proposition that there was no room in this world for difference, no room in this world for the other, no room in this world for them.  Perhaps these recently liberated slaves and their most vulnerable points might internalize these messages. Would it not be easier for them- and for us- to forget these painful realities and to tell ourselves another, more palatable story?  To this the Torah responds with the concluding command. Lo Tiskach– Never Forget!

Sadly, while the tribe of Amalek no longer exists, their ethos of fear of the other continues until this day.  In Dara Horn’s new book of essays, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present, she shares a story that I have heard many times over.  When Jews arrived on these shores, coming through Ellis Island with their difficult to pronounce Jewish names, incompetent yet innocent clerks simplified and changed their names.  I had always heard that names like Sofer or Schreiber– both names for scribes- were mistakes of transcription because immigrants thought they were being asked for their occupation, not their surnames. Indeed, many people have family stories about these changes.

Turns out however, that none of these stories are true.  Horn brings abundant evidence that far from bumbling bureaucrats, the officials at Ellis Island were adept in multiple languages and meticulous record keepers.  The names of the immigrants were not self-reported but came from ship manifests, and if the records were incorrect the ship would need to take the person back to Europe at the company’s own expense.  However, from the 1920s until the 1950s, there are abundant court records of immigrants applying to change their name, the vast majority being Jews, even if the percentage within the population was relatively small.  As a name change needed an explanation, most of the filings explained a name change was economically advantageous, or their names were ‘too difficult to pronounce’.   Far from a sense of self-hatred or shame, an assumption some Jews make about their fellow Jews, in reading between the lines, it was clear that the immigrants simply were not employable, as they were burdened with a name that screamed, yid, Jew.  The price of entry into America was the erasing of their very identities and history, the very things conveyed in a name.

Dara Horn posits what she sees as the real reason for these colorful stories.  They had left their native countries, the victims of hatred and discrimination and landed at the shores near the Statue of Liberty, promising them a new future in the goldene medineh, the country in which the streets were paved from gold.  Perhaps they even knew Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, engraved on the statue’s base, promising a new beginning to the lowly and the oppressed.  Instead, what they found in this new land, was the same disdain and revulsion experienced in the Old Country.  Perhaps the disdain was more ‘gentlemanly and more ‘civilized’, but it was evident to all who walked through these doors.  Was it not better just to forget this humiliation, to shelter the next generation with the truths they wanted to hear, that “America is different?”

Of course, these stories contain within them an uncomfortable truth, a truth we might prefer not to confront at all.  Perhaps one in this country could succeed, but only if to a certain extent they erased their past and who they were. That was the price of admission, the unspoken quid pro quo.  Be Jewish in the home by all means, but not in the street.  To do that was ‘un-American’. To be Jewish and openly so was an embarrassment, and this disdain of others towards them insidiously seeped into the Jewish sub-conscious as well, as the judgement of others transformed into self-loathing and judgement.  Perhaps it is not honorable to be a Jew in the street, and maybe even in the home.

According to the rabbis, God had taken the Jewish people out of Egypt just in time.  They had descended to the 49th level of ritual impurity.  If so, for what reason were they redeemed in the first place?  Interestingly, the rabbis did not say what one might have expected- that they prayed to God, did a certain mitzvah, or even kept shabbat.  Rather, they were redeemed because they did not change their names (shem), language (lashon) and dress (malbush).  These are not religious beliefs but cultural signifiers that mark a community as distinct.  In a little more that a month we will read the Haggadah, in which we are taught that even as they multiplied in Egypt, they were metzuyanim sham, they were distinctive there.  Perhaps it was this reason, the fear and even revulsion of otherness, that led the Egyptians who had initially welcomed them to enslave them in the first place.  If in America the price of integration was acculturation and assimilation, in Egypt the price of distinctiveness was oppression.  In both situations however, difference could not be tolerated.  As human beings, it is almost in our genetic code to be tribal- to embrace kin but to fear the other.  Hatred and fear have never been eliminated from the human heart, no matter how enlightened we would like to consider ourselves. The spirit of Amalek is alive and well.

And it was alive and well in the times of Esther and Mordechai as well.  If you want to know the ethos of the people, look at their leaders.  It is instructive to note the names of our heroes, both named after the pagan deities Ishtar and Marduk.  Both did have Hebrew names, and the megillah tells us that the Hebrew name of Esther was Hadassah.  Still the notion that both could serve in the royal court as Jews was simply unacceptable. Certainly, it was unacceptable for the kingdom, but perhaps unacceptable even to themselves.  Perhaps they internalized the hatred intended for them and tried to cover up the very things that made them different, the very things that made them unique.  Esther needed to disguise herself in her marriage to Achashverosh; no Jew as a Jew could marry the Persian monarch.  Perhaps to live out the ruse however, she needed to disguise herself from herself as well.  Was not denying her very difference the key to acceptance?  Haman proved her and others like her very wrong.  He tells the king:

There are a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.

In these words, Haman identifies the Jewish people as a hidden, subversive cabal living amongst us.  That they seem to look and act like us is part of the deception.  They are dangerous and challenge the absolute power of the king. Like a contagion, they will infect anything they touch. The continuation of the megillah is an awakening of sorts to the uncomfortable reality that the problem with the Jew is not what they do or not do, but their very existence. Esther herself comes to this realization, and both she and Mordechai become the Jewish people’s advocates and protectors.  They both realize that they ultimately must fight for their existence and survival and fight they do.  In rabbinic thought there is also a spiritual awakening, as through embracing the holiday of Purim, they reembrace their unique history as a people that began all the way back at Sinai.  In other words, they embrace and celebrate their difference.

However, the rabbis construct another ending to this story, which sheds light on the long-term psychological damage that Haman wrought (Ruth Rabba 4:5).  The ninth chapter speaks of a letter sent out to the far-flung Jewish communities to celebrate these days of Purim annually (9:20-22).  But then Esther sends out a second letter, confirming that which already was presumably promulgated (9:29). The motivation for the sending of this second letter is unclear, but one midrash fills in the gaps.  Upon sending the first letter, the Jews object to establishing the holiday.  “Is it not enough that we escaped alive from the persecution of Haman?!  Now you want to create an annual event around this?”  On a very real level they are afraid that the annual festival will provide fuel to the anti-Semites and possible future violence.

On a deeper level however, the response may expose the deep scars that are triggered every year, as Jews are reminded that they remain outsiders and are the subjects of hate, a truth many would rather forget. (Perhaps the excessive drinking of the Purim day itself reflects a similar anxiety, and anxiety that would motivate a person to drink until forgetful oblivion.)  Esther’s response in the second letter is meant to be reassuring, but if we consider it differently it is anything but.  She writes back to them that they have nothing to fear, as the events have been recorded in the annals of Persia and Media, and the holiday has been recognized by the government (Esther 10:2).  In other words, the Jewish people can celebrate this holiday because they have official protection.   However, that only reaffirms the reality that indeed, even after the defeat of their enemies, the people know they are despised and therefore need protection.  (In modern terms, the very fact that our synagogues have protection and government protection is fortunate, but it is only fortunate in an unfortunate world where Jews are hated to the extent that synagogues need security details in the first place!)

Lo Tiskach.  Do not forget!  Like the Jews who initially objected to establishing Purim as a holiday, we too might prefer to forget these dark truths.  We would rather tell ourselves and our children’s other stories, nicer stories.  We would rather tell our children stories that this country values equality and if you work hard, anything is open to you.  This is clearly an aspirational vision we all share, but is it the lived reality for all?

Recent events over the past decade have revealed that with the promises of America, the myths we tell about ourselves prevent us from grappling with the darker elements of this country, which have included violence against Jews, minorities, native Americans, African Americans, and foreigners.  To fight hatred of the other, to fight Amalek, is to come face to face with the violence within the human heart, and how the fear we have for others can under the right conditions erupt.  Our struggle against the Jewish haters do not end with the Jews, for those that hate the Jews more than likely hate others as well.  In the authoritarian worlds they want to create, difference cannot be tolerated.  In a world like this, Jews cannot exist, and therefore the Jew must fight.  First for themselves, but also for all of those who are despised for they are different. We must not only fight alone but fight together.  If we do this, we will ultimately defeat the spirit of Amalek we see all around us.

Remember what Amalek did to you, and what they continue to do today.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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