Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mordechai, Esther, and Haman

Mordechai, Esther, and Haman
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On Saturday, March 11, 2017, we observed Shabbat Zachor. Shabbat Zachor is one of two special Shabbats before Purim.  We take out two Torahs, read the maftir aliyah from the second Torah, and say a special haftarah. This year, It was also the day before Purim.

In the maftir, Deuteronomy 25:17-19, we are told, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your way our of Egypt…You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.” 

זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃… תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח 

This meant the annihilation of the Amalekites; in the haftarah Samuel orders Saul to destroy the Amalekites without exception. In the Talmud, Haman is said to be an Amalekite.  

In his words of Torah, Rabbi Marc Mandel, of Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI, spoke about Esther. In his usual light hearted way, he related Purim to modern times,

“Many Jewish newspapers  and magazines do a special issue on Purim to celebrate the holiday. Something like a Purim spoof. When I lived in Los Angeles, the Jewish Journal used to do a special Purim issue every year. 

“Last year the issue had Donald Trump on the cover and the spoof was about President Donald Trump. Well, the joke’s on us because Donald Trump is now our president. 

“But the Purim story seems to live on! There seems to be one person in the White House who is positioned to act as a force of righteousness and a person who could help us as Jews. Like Esther this person is a woman, Ivanka Trump.

“Ivanka is a Jewish woman with sway over a non-Jewish family member in a position of power. Ivanka has championed some causes like climate change and paid maternity leave.

“But as the American Jewish community deals with increased anti-Semitism, Ivanka’s advocacy for the Jewish community is conspicuous by its total absence.

“But in all fairness to Ivanka, it is Jared Kushner, son of Holocaust survivors who should step up and accept Esther’s role.

“But neither Ivanka nor Jared has ever agreed to take this role. Esther did accept the role although at first she didn't want to and only did so because her Uncle Mordechai convinced her.

“So we are left to wonder, how will our modern day Purim story play itself out? We hope that our Purim story will have as happy an ending as the Book of Esther.

“Happy Purim!”

A few people had hoped that the Rabbi would discuss the command to "blot out the memory of the  Amalekites." Should we take this literally? And how can we take this literally? 

This is not a new issue. In the Talmud, Yoma 22b, Saul argued with God about  killing all the Amelikites, just as in Bereishit Abraham argued with God about destroying Sodom. “R`Mani said: ‘Because of what happens 'in the valley': When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Saul: ‘Now go and smite Amalek,’( he[Saul] said: ‘If on account of one person the Torah said: Perform the ceremony of the heifer whose neck is to be broken, how much more [ought consideration to be given] to all these persons! And if human beings sinned, what has the cattle committed; and if the adults have sinned, what have the little ones done?’”

In Berakhot 28a, “Rabbi Yehoshua said to Rabban Gamliel: ‘Do Ammon and Moab reside in their place? Sennacherib already came and, through his policy of population transfer, scrambled all the nations.’” If the nations are scrambled, we can no longer tell who is an Amalekite,  and the command is void. (My Jewish Learning). The Rabbis had already decided to let the ancient text stand, so they did what they often did, found a loophole.  

Another approach is to say that Amalek represents a state of mind, or the evil inclination, not an ethnic group. Joseph Caro did not include the commandment to blot out the Amalek in his code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch.

Sometimes people have identified the Amalekites of their day, be they Romans, Germans, etc. This is a slippery slope, and raises all the issues that the biblical command raises. 

Rabbi David Golinkin said, “In our day, perhaps the most important lesson is not hatred of Amalek but aversion to their actions.”

Golinkin’s grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Golinkin, served in Zhitomir, Ukraine, Dokshitz, Danzig, and Worcester, Massachusetts and was on the Beth Din of the Vaad Harabonim of Massachusetts. 

Rabbi Mordechai Golinkin was zealous for his people during the time of a modern Haman. In 1942 he joined four hundred rabbis in a March of the Rabbis on Washington to persuade the United States government to do something about the Holocaust. At the White House, President Roosevelt left out the back door to avoid meeting them. 

The political fall out helped lead to the creation of the War Refugee Board. The Board and  the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee sponsored Raul Wallenberg in 1944. Wallenberg saved the lives of thousands of Jews in Budapest, Hungary. The Rabbis never learned that their efforts helped to save lives.

Many are bothered that the command to blot out the Amalekites is in the Torah at all.  Torah is a big tent, including Tanach (bible), Talmud and all that follows. Although Judaism has preserved its earliest writings, it is much more.


David Golinkin, The Jeruslaem Post, March 9, 2006 THE FIRST WORD: ARE JEWS STILL COMMANDED TO BLOT OUT AMALEK?

MyJewishLearning.com  Ask the Expert: Blotting out Amalek How do we know who's an Amalekite?

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