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Naomi Graetz

The Eternal Price of Never Forgetting: Vayikra and Purim

Graphic by NG

This Shabbat is shabbat zachor. It is also the beginning of the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), which is a book mostly about sacrificial laws. And Saturday night is Purim when we read the Megillah. I will make a monumental attempt to connect the dots between Leviticus, shabbat zachor (remembrance) and Purim.

Let’s start with zachor: The reason it is called shabbat zachor is because we read a passage from Deuteronomy and also the haftarah from 1 Samuel 15:1-34). The two passages relate to the necessity of remembering Amalek and never forgetting what he did to us.

Remember  זכור  what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when your God יהוה grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that your God יהוה is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget לא תשכח ! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

In Samuel too we are enjoined to remember Amalek and have no mercy on him.

Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over His people Israel. Therefore, listen to the LORD’s command!  “Thus said the LORD of Hosts: I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made upon them on the road, on their way up from Egypt. Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one  ולא תחמול עליו, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (1 Samuel 15:1-3)

Despite these orders from God via his messenger the prophet Samuel, Saul had a mind of his own:

Saul destroyed Amalek from Havilah all the way to Shur, which is close to Egypt, and he captured King Agag of Amalek alive. He proscribed all the people, putting them to the sword; but Saul and the troops spared Agag (ויחמל שאול והעם על אגג ) and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the second-born, the lambs, and all else that was of value. They would not proscribe them; they proscribed only what was cheap and worthless. (1 Samuel 15: 7-9).

Because Saul did not follow orders, he lost his kingdom to David and it was Samuel who ended up killing King Agag:

Samuel said, “Bring forward to me King Agag of Amalek.” Agag approached him with faltering steps; and Agag said, “Ah, bitter death is at hand!” Samuel said:“As your sword has bereaved women, So shall your mother be bereaved among women.” And Samuel cut Agag down before the LORD at Gilgal (1 Samuel 32-33).

And why do we read this before Purim? We read about Amalek, because the villain of the Scroll of Esther is Haman whose genealogy is mentioned in chapter three as being a descendant of Agag.

Sometime afterward, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials.

These connections are easy. But not so easy are the connections (if any) between the book of Vayikra. The first parsha of Vayikra (also called Vayikra) starts with the sacrifices or offerings that we must bring in order to approach or communicate with God. The word for sacrifice is קרבן whose root k-r-b has the sense of to come near or get close to. Its root also expresses the idea of the battlefield (kerav). It also has the meaning of victim (korban). There are five kinds of offerings, olah, minchah, shelamim, chatat, and asham (burnt, meal, well-being, sin, and guilt offerings).

There is a clear-cut system in this week’s parsha that offers a way for sinners to get redemption. We do not have to be in a limbo state of evil. Yet this seems to contradict the special maftir passage and haftara for this week where we are enjoined never to forget and when God/via Samuel, does not forgive Saul. Why is it so important to physically wipe out the evil that Amalek represents?  The rabbis softened the remembrance (zachor) and/or wiping out of of evil and made it more abstract:

The Gemara raises a question: But from where do we know that this remembrance that is stated with regard to Amalek and to the Megilla involves reading it out loud from a book? Perhaps it requires merely looking into the book, reading it silently. The Gemara answers: It should not enter your mind to say this, as it was taught in a baraita: The verse states: “Remember what Amalek did to you” (Deuteronomy 25:17). One might have thought that it suffices for one to remember this silently, in his heart. But this cannot be, since when it says subsequently: “You shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:19), it is already referring to forgetting from the heart. How, then, do I uphold the meaning of “remember”? What does this command to remember add to the command to not forget? Therefore, it means that the remembrance must be expressed out loud, with the mouth (BT Megillah 18a).

What this means is that we don’t have to physically wipe out our enemies as is done in the Megillah in chapter 9. We can read about it and study the text and in that way, we uphold the idea of remembering and not forgetting the existence of evil. Evil is part of our world, and according to Isaiah was created by God:

I form light and create darkness; I make shalom and create evil—עֹשֶׂ֥ה שָׁל֖וֹם וּב֣וֹרֵא רָ֑ע — I GOD do all these things (Isaiah 45:7).

If that is the case, we have to learn to live with evil, and perhaps it is not a good idea to try and totally destroy evil.  The Talmud hints at this when it writes:

Some of Haman’s descendants studied Torah in Bnei Brak, and some of Sisera’s descendants taught children Torah in Jerusalem, and some of Sennacherib’s descendants taught Torah in public. Who are they? They are Shemaya and Avtalyon, the teachers of Hillel the Elder (Gittin 57b).

What is the point of this? Had we succeeded in totally destroying evil, we would not have had the great scholars who taught Hillel. Perhaps this statement is to deal with the very difficult chapter at the end of the Megillah. At the end of the Megillah which we will be reading Saturday night, we find that the “happy ending” turns out to be a massacre of the people of Shushan.

And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power.

Throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt; and no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples….

So, the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies.

In the fortress Shushan the Jews killed a total of five hundred men….

The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes; but they did not lay hands on the spoil.

That was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar; and they rested on the fourteenth day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking….

Consequently, these days are recalled and observed in every generation: by every family, every province, and every city. And these days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never perish among their descendants (Esther 9).

So the feasting and merrymaking that we all are to observe for generations is because we killed thousands of our enemies.

Can we, or should we read anything into these texts that pertain to us today?  First of all, these texts seemed to have resonated with people like the Jewish settler and terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who exactly thirty years ago (1994), on Purim, injured more than 120 people and massacred almost 30 people in the holy site of Ma’arat ha-Machpelah in Hebron. And some people still glorify him for this act. Only last year, two Israeli settlers attacked Palestinians with an ax and stones in Huwara on Purim. During the attack they shouted “Death to the Arabs”. This led to a riot. Later on, videos captured soldiers and settlers dancing to Purim music in the middle of Huwara around the time of the clashes. This was in response, or perhaps a continuation of the violence that occurred a week before Purim after two Israeli brothers were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in Huwara. One of the signs put up Jewish settlers was a quote from Chapter 9 of Megillat Esther, “The Jews overcame their enemies.”

How do we deal with difficult texts? Most of us are so tired at the end of the Megillah service that we barely pay attention to what is written. Our ears are tired from the noise of the groggers; we read the names of Haman’s sons who are hanged in one breath. Finally, we sing shoshanat Yakov and then if we are lucky eat a hamantaschen, which in Hebrew is aznei haman (Haman’s ears). Some of us are unlucky enough to pay attention to the text and realize that these texts are very serious and perhaps we should be doing something about their message.  I recently came across some interesting alternatives to chapter 9 in a project aptly called Chapter 9 Project”. Although I don’t necessarily agree with many of the articles, I think it is definitely worth a read. Too often today, we engage in binary thinking. It is difficult not to, when our lives are threatened. Yet it would be a shame if we cannot read opinions that differ from our own. With that in mind, I wish you all a half-hearted Purim Sameach.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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