Friday, March 18, 2016

Shabbat Zachor: Blotting out Amalek

This past Saturday night as I was dreading the changing of the clock for Daylight Savings, I saw online a cartoon that read “I’m ready to turn the clock forward 8 months until after the elections are over.”

Show of hands, who feels that way? I bet a lot of us do. We’ve been in election mode since the early summer a year ago and we have a long way to go yet. And the process has not made us more astute, or thoughtful about our political choices. Mostly it’s been a lot of yelling. There’s been yelling at the debates; though up until recently the Democrats were having relatively calm discussions about policy. There’s been yelling over the internet. Yelling between the candidates, which has turned increasingly crass. There’s been Yelling between different parts of the electorate, which have devolved into physical attacks. And, of course, yelling threats to the press, to protesters, to counter-protesters.  Are the candidates sexist? Misogynist? Fascist? Communist? Is Trump Silvio Berlusconi, or George Wallace, or Mussolini? Or even worse?

The whole thing raises my anxiety level from one scotch to two-and-a-half, and it worries me considerably. It worries me for our process, which has been getting increasingly harsh and banal for years, and seems to be looking for new ways to demolish our integrity and hope for the future.
I’m starting to wonder if the folks who organized the most recent round of primaries knew the Jewish calendar. Purim is around the corner, which means this Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, that time when we are tasked with remembering Amalek, how they sought to wipe us out as we departed from Egypt by attacking the most vulnerable of our people. Haman, the villain of Purim is understood to be a descendant of Amalek’s king Agag, and he becomes the archetypal Amalekite: an egotistical, xenophobic leader eager to murder an entire people, our people.

Amalek and Haman are not just historical characters, of course. They are metaphors for those who would commit acts of genocide, who would prey upon the vulnerable, and who has wished over the ages to commit unspeakable acts driven by their antisemitism.

It’s also interesting to also note that AIPAC’s Policy Conference usually takes place right before Purim, as it does this year. Having attended a few times, I can tell you it’s not unusual to hear language echoing those ideas—of the fight against antisemitism and safety of the Jews—at AIPAC’s policy conference.  This year they have invited Donald Trump to speak, declaring it to be an act of bipartisanship. After all, he is the frontrunner on the Republican side, they argue.  And, they clarify, an invitation to speak is not an endorsement.

A few weeks ago Marvin Krislov, the president of Oberlin College, my alma mater, used similar language to describe why they were not firing a faculty member who claims that the Jews orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and the downing of Malaysian flight 370, among other things. She is permitted to speak, Krislov says, but her speech should not be seen as having been endorsed by the college.


So if we don’t buy that logic from Oberlin, why does it work for AIPAC, exactly? How does this burnish their bipartisan, pragmatic reputation? More to the point, how does this keep Israel from becoming a partisan issue?  As one example, couldn’t they simply have not invited any of the presidential candidates and stayed out of the fray? What does having Trump, who’s own agenda, if you can call it that, seems to speak in the language of violence and xenophobia, accomplish, exactly?
I said before that Amalek and Haman are metaphors, but if we draw the conclusion that they are only metaphors for people we do ourselves a disservice. There are other lessons for us to learn from Haman and Amalek. Amalek is a metaphor for the abuse of the vulnerable, Haman a metaphor for power unchecked and in the service of ego. And they are more than that; they are a mirror for us to look into. At the end of the book of Esther, the Jews are saved not by cancelling the decree, but by doing to the people of Shushan exactly what Haman and his followers would have done to them. That is, the Jews become the mob, performing massacres so numerous that non-Jews pretend to be Jews to avoid destruction. That is a lesson as well: that our values of democracy and free speech cannot be allowed to be manipulated or misused in the pursuit of power and publicity. We also learn from Esther that strength comes from one’s own identity, and that we cannot wait for others to come save the day, or that the problems we face will magically go away on their own.

We are commanded to remember Amalek, and blot their name—what they stand for—from the earth. If we are to truly blot out Amalek, we must stay true to our values, and not give voice to our worst instincts. We must protect the vulnerable especially because they are vulnerable, and we must be suspicious of those who seek power as an extension of their own egos, and would even stoop to use violence in language and action to achieve such power. Early in the book of Esther, Mordechai reminds Esther that she has an obligation not to keep silent, and that perhaps she has more ability to deal with the crisis than she thinks. Mordechai is speaking to us as well. We cannot remain silent, and who knows? Perhaps we were put here for just such a crisis. 

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