Shabbat Zakhor: Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch on Remembering Our Values

The Shabbat before Purim we add to our weekly Torah reading (Vayikrah-the opening of the book of Leviticus), Deuteronomy 25:17-19. This is one of the two sections of the Torah where we are commanded to engage in a seemingly eternal war never to forget to blot out any remembrance of Amalek. We are told to do this AFTER God has given us rest from our enemies. Perhaps this means that we will always have hidden enemies, even when we think we are safe. However, perhaps it means to know when the time for war is over, and we must truly blot out the memories we have been holding on to. We are also told that Amalek attacked the weak and the straggling.

Regardless of the question whether we could be doing more to achieve peace, the rockets shot at us on Thursday remind us that we are not entirely at rest from our enemies. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that our care of the weak and the straggling among us leaves much to be desired. Here we must remember that there are both sins of commission and sins o f omission. We are taught in Pirke Avot 5:10 that the one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours is an average person, but some say that this is to be like the Sodomites,” This is because we cannot say “I am OK if I didn’t harm the person starving outside my door. I don’t have to go out of my way to help him/her.” Perhaps we are being taught in Deuteronomy that, when we are at rest from fighting for survival, we must remember to take care of the weak and the straggling.

Our treatment of Palestinians and Israel’s non-Jewish citizens often entails sins of commission. Arguably, our treatment of fellow Israeli Jews living in poverty is also a sin of commission. However, we are definitely committing sins of omission.

Many Israelis live in poverty, and we have the 6th largest social gap among OECD countries. Only some 3% of our housing stock is public housing, as compared to 20% and more in much of Europe. Eligibility criteria having nothing to do with one’s need mean that , in addition to the 30,000 families eligible and waiting for public housing, there are much larger numbers that aren’t even being counted-perhaps 170,000. Stable housing is critical for people to be able to lift themselves out of poverty. Without it, it is hard to hold on to a job, children are constantly moving from school to school, it is difficult to form a stable support group and community providing a security net, etc.

The current government passed an important step forward just before declaring elections. Up to 7% of all state funded building would need to be public housing. However, we know almost nothing about who among the parties running in the current elections will continue this or other plans to ensure that every Israeli will have a secure and stable roof over their heads. In the last elections, the Public Housing Forum, of which my organization (Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice) is a part, succeeded in making public housing a widely discussed issue among parties and candidates. In this election, discussion of social or other policy issues is almost absent.

Back to the questions I asked at the outset, veteran readers know that my teacher, Rabbi Ben Hollander z”l, taught Rashi’s comment that the prohibition against using uneven weights and measures (expanded by the rabbis to mean all forms of double standards and discriminatory behavior) just before Deuteronomy reminds us of Amalek is because unjust double standards (eifah v’eifah) open the door to Amalek. Nineteenth century Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch builds on this to teach that our mission as the Jewish people is to loyally serve God’s Goal that the entire world will adopt the ideals of justice, humaneness, loving kindness and morality over Amalek’s glorification of violence and enjoyment of causing harm to fellow human beings. We must never exploit power or advantage over others. The command to blot out the memory of Amalek is not a command to physically destroy the Hamans and Agag’s – descendents of Amalek we read about in this week’s Haftarah and on Purim, but to defeat Amalek’s values. What does it mean to never forget to remember to blot out the memory of Amalek? It means that we need to recall Amalek and his fate from time to time in order not to forget who we are and our mission, if the day comes when we are tempted to adapt the uncouthness, violence and delight in suffering characterizing Amalek. We must never be blinded by the admiration of others for Amalek’s way. This command is mentioned together with the Land of Israel God has given us, just before we enter the Land, because we can only bequeath the Land to our children if we bequeath our mission and our values.

Rabbi Hirsch says it so beautifully, that I am going to conclude by quoting him extensively. Although there is a published English translation of his Torah commentary, this is my own translation from the Hebrew version (Hirsch wrote in German).

During this election period, and at all times, may we never give in to the temptation to harm either our fellow Israelis or any human being through either sins of commission or omission. May we blot out the memory of Amalek by living the values of justice, humaneness, loving kindness and morality.

Shabbat Shalom

From Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s commentary to Deuteronomy 25:17-19

Zakhor (Remember)

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. For this reason the Torah repeats and reminds us of the difference in the essence (of Israel and Amalek), never to be forgotten…. Only here 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.

The Land that your God gave you
The Land that God gives you to inherit was already promised to your ancestors, and it is given to you only so that you can bequeath it to your children. You don’t merit this by your power. You inherit it by your loyalty to the Covenant with God of your ancestors, and only if you bequeath this loyalty to your children, will you bequeath to them the Land.

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:
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.

Don’t forget
So you won’t forget this, remember Amalek from time to time, and what you have been told his future is so you can teach this to your children.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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