David Kalb
Rabbi Kalb directs the Jewish Learning Center

Zachor, Purim, vaccinations and the back of the line

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 oblig9ted 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 are 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, and Somalia and we left our fellow human beings behind. We tragically continue to do this in Darfur and Syria.

Leaving people behind occurs not only in the context of the cataclysmic issue of genocide. When a school, be it public, private, Jewish or another religious affiliation, does not provide appropriate services for children with special needs, we leave them behind. When a synagogue does not make the proper adjustments for people with disabilities (both visible and invisible disabilities), we are leaving them behind. When a community does not provide for the homeless, the poor, and the hungry, we have left them behind. When our country does not live up to the words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” we give in to prejudice and leave people at the back of the line.

I received my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Mount Sinai Hospital. I was inoculated because, in addition to my work as a rabbi at the Jewish Learning Center, I also serve as a chaplain at the New York State Chaplain’s Task Force. I marveled, at the extraordinary efficiency, kindness and compassion of the staff and volunteers at Mount Sinai, as they dealt with such a large and diverse crowd of New Yorkers. Everyone in line also acted with such respect and appreciation. Nonetheless,  I thought about how people have been left in the back of the line during the pandemic. Racial, ethnic minority groups, the poor, immigrants, people with physical and intellectual challenges and those in the LGBTQ community are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The same could be said about accessing the vaccine.

Rabbi David Kalb receiving his second Covid-19 Vaccination at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

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. (Esther Chapters 4-9).

This week’s parashah (Torah portion) is Parashat Tetzave; it describes the clothing that was worn by the Kohanim (Priests) in the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in which the Israelites worshiped when they were traveling through the desert from Egypt to Israel. 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. Think of situations in life where you as an individual or you as a member of society leave people behind. Then think about what you can do, to move these 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.

About the Author
Rabbi David Kalb is the Rabbi of Jewish Learning Center of New York where he is responsible for the creative, educational, spiritual, and programmatic direction of the organization.
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