I am part of the lucky generation, a post war baby boomer (those born between 1946-1964). I grew up in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa when the world was recovering from the trauma of World War 2 and seeking to rebuild and renew itself. It seemed the world was on the cusp of a new era. The term baby-boom refers to a noticeable increase in the birth rate, a sure sign of hope and belief in the future. The years following the war were also marked by dramatic social changes which erupted especially in the 1960’s: the Vietnam and Cold Wars, the Flower-Power, Beatlemania and Woodstock age. Drugs, sex, rock ‘n roll and a man stepping onto the moon identified this time.
Despite and perhaps because of the chilling threats of nuclear extinction and the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King we were a lucky generation. The world opened up like a new and exotic flower full of promise, liberation and hope. For a young Jew it was an especially lucky time: antisemitism was on the wane, Israel was on the rise as a model nation and the 1967 war mesmerised us with its expression of chutzpah, power and miracle. Israel was strong, unafraid and assertive and we in the Diaspora were in turn emboldened and empowered.
Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (written in 1992), asserted that the world was witnessing not just the end of the Cold War or of a particular historical period, but the “end of history as such – the end point of humankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.
It was, as Fukuyama himself has recently acknowledged, an overly optimistic assessment saying “twenty five years ago I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backwards. And I think they clearly can”.
Looking back, I can sadly say so many Jews were also charmed into thinking that with the Shoah we had witnessed the end of history as we knew it; that antisemitism was dead or banished. We had failed to read the lessons of our history, we had failed to listen to the voices of a lot of our survivors.
They well-understood the toxicity of antisemitism, that it’s the worlds longest and most enduring hatred, that like some dreadful virus it comes and goes but is always prevalent. This is, of course, one of the essential messages of Purim and the Megillah story. At Purim time the Jews discovered, in the words of Soloveitchik, “that from time to time, man goes berserk, turns into a monster, and replaces his Divine personality with a satanic personality”. It was an agonising, traumatic experience for the Jews of Persia who had believed they were an accepted and vital part of the vast empire. They participated in its affairs and were flattered to be invited to one of the many state parties put on by the noble King Achashverosh. Their realisation and awful awakening were exacerbated by the Jewish belief that there’s a divine spark in every human being. When they encountered Haman they encountered the quintessential Amalekite who is consumed and obsessed by a virulent animosity towards the Jew. One of the most telling expressions of this irrational antagonism is the rationale of Haman, who at the pinnacle of his power declares: “Yet all this means nothing to me, as long as I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the King’s gate” (Esther 5:13).
This Shabbat before Purim is called “Shabbat Zachor” the Sabbath of Remembrance or more precisely “Shabbat – Remember”. It refers to the commandment to remember what Amalek did when they attacked the new nation of Israel (shortly after the Exodus), targeting the weak and vulnerable stragglers at the fringes of the encampment. The spirit of Amalek is one of intense, implacable and unending hostility towards the Jew and indeed any moral, civil society. Haman was a direct descendant of Amalek. Probably one of the most significant phrases of the passage we read is the reminder that the battle with Amalek is ongoing from generation to generation. Amalek may go underground, hide in a dark hole, only to emerge from time to time with the same implacable enmity.
“Zachor” is a summons to always be ready and prepared to defend ourselves but also not necessarily to react to every provocation. It takes as much strength to exercise restraint in the face of anti-Semitic allusions or remarks as it does to forcefully reject blatant anti-Semitic acts. And it takes the strength of wisdom to know when to hold back and when to hit back.
Zachor is about remembering that when confronted, we also need to assert the superiority of morality over animosity, love over hatred. In the memorable words of the Megillah: May the Jews and indeed the world around us experience “a time of light and gladness, joy and appreciation”.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach.
Looking forward to seeing you at our “thank you” Kiddush on Shabbat and celebrating with you on Wednesday night (wear a crazy hat) and Thursday.