The Shabbat immediately preceding the festival of Purim has long been referred to as Shabbat Zachor– literally, the Shabbat of Remember (exclamation point!). It takes that title from the opening word of the special Maftir – a supplementary Torah reading in Deuteronomy– read from a second scroll. It commands us– the Jewish people– to remember the ancient treachery of Amalek, and never to forget it.
Amalek was a heartless, implacable enemy, preying on the most vulnerable non-combatants of our ancient ancestors and showing no mercy. Because Haman, the evil architect of the Purim plot to wipe out the Jewish people of ancient Persia, was considered a descendant of Amalek, we are mindful not just of his plan, but also of the recurring presence of such types in the history of the Jewish people. In but a few weeks, as we gather at our Seder tables, that message will be reinforced when we recite that “…in each and every generation, there are those who would rise up against us to finish us off, but the Holy One, praised be He, saves us from their hands.”
It is difficult, if not impossible, to miss the almost surreal juxtaposition of this year’s Shabbat Zachor observance with both the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, beginning on Sunday, and also Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to the American Congress on March 3, on the subject of Iran and its nuclear ambitions. The issue of a serious threat to the physical security of the Jewish people– in this modern case, the Jewish state– is front and center right now on the radar screen of every Jew. And, of course, the connection between ancient Persia and modern Iran is direct and incontrovertible.
The commandment to observe Shabbat Zachor long pre-existed the Nazi Holocaust, but the uniquely grotesque horrors of those years added immeasurably to the imperative to remember. If anything, Zachor– absent the Shabbat prefix– became, for good and understandable reasons, the mantra of post-Holocaust Judaism. Remembrance became the categorical imperative of the modern Jew. To forget is to betray history, and to doom us to repeat it. And that, we surely cannot afford to do…
But side by side with the imperative to remember comes the danger of, if you will, over-remembering. When the entire reason for being of modern Judaism becomes not to allow a recurrence of past horrors, then surely our sense of balance is hopelessly askew. We deprive ourselves, and, more importantly, our younger generations, of the all-important capacity to celebrate Jewish life and believe in its possibilities, when we force them to live in the valley of the shadow of memory.
As the late and much-missed Walter Cronkite might have said, “that’s the way it is.” We are inextricably mired in this dialectical tension of memory, and it is playing out before our eyes in ways that are both dramatic and terrifying.
I myself have argued both sides of this dialectic in separate columns over the past few weeks, charging both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama with overplaying what are, in essence, both defensible hands.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, is his frantic effort to strip Iran of all nuclear potential, regards any deal that would fail to do so as betraying the imperative of memory. If nothing else was learned from the Holocaust, he would say, then surely it must be that if someone or some country claims that the eradication of Israel from the face of the earth is its goal, then we owe it to those who died in Auschwitz to believe them. As a Jew, there is no way I could or would argue with that statement. The only question is, how does one accomplish that? Is it really true that any deal that leaves Iran with a nuclear program, no matter how closely it might be monitored and how easily sanctions might be re-imposed, is a disaster for Israel? It would appear that there is not a clear consensus about this even in Israel’s intelligence community. And is it worth sacrificing Israel’s relationship with the only strategic ally that it has, at a time when friends are scarce?
The American President, on the other hand, who for the sake of his own historical legacy seems just a little too anxious to make a deal with Iran, accuses Israel of sabotaging American foreign policy by so publicly and audaciously opposing anything that America would negotiate. Netanyahu may indeed be overplaying his hand, for his own reasons. But some are saying that the American President seems all too ready to “throw Israel under the bus” for the sake of achieving what might be a significant foreign policy achievement.
To be honest, what scares me the most is that I don’t think that the President sees this as throwing Israel under the bus. I think he genuinely believes that a deal that leaves Iran with a nuclear program is not a danger to Israel. And there’s that memory dialectic rearing its ugly head again; what constitutes an “acceptable risk” when you’re talking about people who have threatened to eradicate you from the face of the earth?
Should be a fascinating few days; stay tuned….
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.