I spoke and led a prayer today at a demonstration in support of Ukraine in front of the United States Mission to the United Nations. It was beautiful to see a diverse group of protestors across different faiths and ethnicities. Our group included Rabbis and Ukrainian Catholic Priests. Since tonight is Purim, I would like to relate some words about Purim to the situation in Ukraine.
This past Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. A special Maftir (a special additional Torah reading) called Parshat Zachor, the Portion of Remembrance is read. Reading Parshat Zachor, according to some authorities, is a Torah based commandment, a Mitzvah Doraytah, that we are each obligated to fulfill by hearing the entire reading without interruption (Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 685:7). It is, of course, important to hear the Torah at its regular times, and every Jewish community is obligated to provide a public Torah reading for its members (Ma’aseh Rav Section 175). What is it about Parshat Zachor, however, that requires from us the heightened obligation that each and every individual Jew must hear this reading without interruption? What is unique about Parshat Zachor? What are we supposed to remember?
Parshat Zachor tells the story of the Amalekites. According to Dvarim (Deuteronomy) Chapter 25:17-19 the Amalekites attacked Israel from behind as they traveled across the desert from Egypt to the land of Israel. Who was behind? Who was in the back? The weak, the sick and the physically challenged. For their cowardly attack on this group of highly vulnerable individuals, the Amalekites are considered to be the paradigm of evil and the arch-enemy of the Jewish People.
The Torah, therefore, commands us to blot out the memory of Amalek. The Torah, however, also commands us not to forget Amalek. There is no nation of Amalek in today’s world. The only reason they exist is because we remember them. If we were to forget about the Amalekites, they would cease to exist. The dual Mitzvah of blotting out and not forgetting presents a contradiction. How can God command us to blot out the memory of Amalek and at the same time command us to not forget them?
How can we explain this contradiction? Perhaps the Mitzvah to blot out the memory of Amalek and simultaneously remember them is not to be taken literally. It is, rather, about conscience raising. While the actual people known as Amalek no longer exist, the concept of Amalek is, unfortunately, alive and well. Many people today and throughout history have embodied the concept of Amalek. The point of the story is that we need to remember that there is evil in the world and that we are obligated to stand up to evil, to oppose it, and to refuse to tolerate it.
What is the specific nature of evil in the story of Amalek? Let us answer this question by posing three other questions: Why did the Israelites leave the weakest individuals in the rear? Why did they leave them open to attack? Why did they not position them in a place where they could be protected?
The biblical commentary the Iturei Torah says on Dvarim 25:17, “If the community of Israel had not forgotten these stragglers, but rather, had brought them close under the wings of God’s presence in order to return them underneath the clouds of glory so that they would be together with the whole house of Israel, then Amalek would not have overcome them. But because these stragglers were left behind, Amalek was successful. This is a sign for generations”. When the entire community is supported and together, then Amalek cannot gain control.
This understanding of the text forces us to think about what our responsibilities are towards the weakest amongst us. We must realize that we as individuals and as a society often leave the weakest behind. There are also times that it is not the weakest that we leave behind; sometimes we leave behind people who are just experiencing challenges.
A glaring example is the silence of the world during the Shoah (Holocaust) when the world left European Jewry behind. The world has not improved much since the Shoah. During the slaughters in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Darfur and Syria. Today we must not leave behind the people of Ukraine.
Parshat Zachor is read the Shabbat before Purim. The stories are connected. Haman (the government official in the Purim story who wishes to destroy the Jewish people) is called “Ha-agagee” (Esther 3:1). Agag was the King of the Amalikites during the time of King Saul (Samuel 15:8). This seems to suggest that Haman could have been an Amalikite. However, what is even more significant is the difference between the two stories. In Parshat Zachor the weak are left behind; as a result, they are attacked by Amalek. In the Purim story when Haman plans to destroy the Jews, Esther, with the encouragement of her cousin Mordechai, risks her own life and speaks up for the Jewish nation. She does not leave her people behind. (EstherChapters 4-9). We must be like Esther and speak out for Ukraine. We are grateful for what President Biden; the Congress and the rest of the United States Government has done for Ukraine.
However, it is critical that America do more in five areas.
- The United States must send more armaments: iron domes, fighter jets, surface to air missiles and anti-tank missiles.
- There are different positions on the no-fly zone, but whatever one’s position on the no-fly zone, we can all agree that United States should not be declaring what it will not do; such declarations embolden the Putin to plunder and murder more.
- America needs to do more to receive Ukrainian refugees.
- The United States should deliver even more humanitarian Aid.
- America has put a serious blow to Russia’s economy. We must further hit Russia economically.
When the history of this horrific war will be written, let it not be stated, that much like in the late 1930s and early 1940s, that America did too little too late, as it did for European Jewry.
Shemot/Exodus 28:15 points out that the High Priest wore a breastplate on his chest. It was called the Choshen Mishpat, the Breastplate of Judgment. This breastplate had two purposes: 1. It helped the court to achieve atonement if they made an incorrect decision and 2. It gave answers to important national questions. Essentially the Choshen Mishpat played an important role in achieving justice. Today, we do not have the Choshen Mishpat. Instead, we have to look within our hearts, our minds and our souls to bring justice to the world. Parshat Zachor should make us think about how at times, we leave people behind.
Let us think of how as an individual or as a member of society we are leaving the people Ukraine behind. Then think about what you can do, to move the Ukrainian people up to a place of security, protection and love. By doing this, we will help in some small way to bring justice to the world.