The Shabbat before Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor, when we unpack the story of a blood feud between Israel and Amalek which stretches from the time of Moses through the kingdom of Saul all the way until its bloody conclusion in the Megillah. Tragically, while we read this parshah and prepared to celebrate Purim, yet another cycle of oppression and retributive violence was playing out in modern Israel. At our Shabbat Zachor service on March 4th, Rabbi Deena delivered a sermon connecting the disturbing events in Huwara to those in the Torah and Megillah.
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A decade ago, I was living in Jerusalem working for an NGO, and I volunteered at night teaching an English class to African refugees. The day after Purim, my students came in with questions. Purim in Israel is sort of like Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and 4th of July rolled into one: a big, raucous, costumed street party, and my students were, understandably, pretty confused. So I tried to explain: Purim is a Jewish holiday where we remember the story of Queen Esther in Persia, and how the wicked Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people, but Esther stood up for her people to the king and saved the Jews from destruction.
After I finished, there was a moment of silence in the room. “Er, what is everyone thinking?” I asked the group.
“Someone thought they could kill ALL the Jews, and you took them seriously?” one Sudanese man finally asked, “But the Jews are the strongest nation on Earth!”
I was raised on a narrative of Judaism as a nation of survivors, taught to see Israel as the little nation that could, the underdog who took on her powerful neighbors and survived. But for these Sudanese and Eritrean men, Israel was the place they went to in search of refuge and safety, the place that afforded them protection from violence and persecution. It was a watershed moment for me. The Jewish people are not just unlikely survivors. We’re also powerful, the heroes in someone else’s story.
This “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat” version of the story is also the one we usually tell about Purim. A tale of unlikely, plucky survival like the one I learned in Hebrew school could indeed describe the events of the Megillah… if we left off the end. Chapter 9, in particular, is hard to hear with 2023 ears: in revenge and retaliation for Haman’s decree, the Jews of Persia massacre tens of thousands of their neighbors. And then they turned the day into celebration. It is a bloody, vengeful, violent tale, and it too is part of our story.
Because we cannot erase the end of the megillah, we have to confront the fact that there are, actually, two narratives of the Jewish people in the Purim story: in one, we’re just one evil man, one corrupt power system, away from being annihilated. In the other, we’re so powerful we can slaughter our enemies and make them cower with fear.
But here’s the really important part: It’s not either or. Both of these narratives hold truth across Jewish history, and especially today. We have been slaves and conquerors, strangers in a foreign land and rulers of our own nation, victims and warriors. The Purim story reminds us of these dualities, to think about where and when we are powerful, and when we are weak.
This same tension between a narrative of power and a narrative of vulnerability is also one of the fundamental tensions in Israel right now. Listen to Israeli politicians, journalists and commentators, and you will hear two stories similar to the ones in the Megilla: in one, “Israel is under existential attack from enemies who want to destroy her”; in the other “Israel is the most powerful democracy in the region, with one of the most advanced armies in the world”.
Over the past week, these versions have both been retold.
The story I’m going to tell you about recent events has no clear beginning, and it certainly hasn’t reached its end yet, so I’m going to drop into a moment in time, and ask you to remember that so much came before these events, and things continue to evolve in real time.
Last week, a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli brothers in a West Bank settlement called Har Brach. Jewish Israeli Settlers went to a nearby Palestinian village called Huwara, where they lit about 100 cars and 30 Palestinian homes on fire, killing at least one person and injuring close to 400 Palestinians. The violence continued to ping pong back and forth — a few days later, a suspected Palestinian gunman killed an Israeli American driving through the West Bank, the Israeli army conducted raids in Palestinian villages in the West Bank… and so on.
I want to pause to make two points: 1) I believe all murder is bad, regardless of motive, scope, or identity. Judaism teaches that the loss of human life to violence is a tragedy of the highest order. 2) I’m not trying to trace blame, to explain or justify any side, nor to try to suggest a solution to this conflict. Far smarter people than myself have been working to untangle this knot for decades and they haven’t succeeded, so I don’t think I’m going to figure this one out in a short drash.
I do want to zoom in on one moment in this recent flare of violence and unpack it.
A video from the attack in Huwara made its way around social media of settlers, religious Jews, standing in front of a home they had set on fire and davening Maariv, turning that site of destruction into a place they deemed worthy of exalting God.
Praying and offering praise is a form of kiddush ha’shem, literally making God’s name and presence holy in the moment. It speaks to the idea of making our actions a reflection of God’s way, and of holiness. The opposite of kiddush ha’shem is Hillul ha’shem, a cursing or dirtying of God’s name.
Across the political spectrum, leaders have called out the prayer of these settlers in front of a burning home as a chillul ha’shem, a desecration of holiness, by linking God’s name to violence and destruction.
It makes me wonder: how do we get to the place where we mistake kiddush ha’shem, acts of righteousness and holiness, for what Israeli politicians have been calling a pogrom?!
The answer comes in a section of Torah we always read on this Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim. It is known as “Shabbat Zachor”, because we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us on our journey, after we left Egypt. Amalek, according to the Torah, attacked from behind, killing the young and old, the sick and weak. They are linked with the wicked Haman, the villain of the Purim story who sought to destroy the entire Jewish people because of a perceived slight by one Jew.
The Torah describes the Amalekite attack as “undeterred by fear of God.” “Therefore,” the Torah commands, “when God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
Shabbat Zachor teaches us to look not just backwards, but also in front of us. Look out for the weak at the back, remember your own experience of being attacked from behind, of watching your most vulnerable be cut down, we are commanded. Make sure you are safe and protected. But also, remember that feeling, so you don’t do it to others.
As Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Hadar wrote this week, “These young men, wearing their kippot and tzitzit, may have felt they were fulfilling the Biblical command we read about this week: taking revenge on our enemies. They may have felt triumphant echoes of the megillah–“וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם כִּרְצוֹנָם–the Jews dealing with their enemies as they see fit.” (Esther 9:5) In reality, though, they were reminding us about the real essence of the war against Amalek: how only a hair’s breadth separates Israel from its arch enemy. The preying on the weak, the loss of moral compass, the pursuit of power without restraint or protocol—these are the Amalekite tendencies that are latent within all of us, especially the people of Israel.”
The line between zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek, remember what Amalek did to you, and timche at zecher Amalek, blot out the memory of Amalek, is both razor thin and black and white. In our zeal to protect ourselves, to fulfill God’s command that we fight for our own security, we risk becoming the very enemy we despise.
We must remember that not every threat is Amalek. If we get stuck in the narrative that we are always being chased by an evil and existential threat, we risk becoming like Amalek ourselves. As Israel’s government slides further towards the extreme right, dismantling the judicial system and handing power to extremists, I am worried about us becoming Amalek, wreaking havoc in front of us because we cannot stop looking over our shoulders for a threat.
This is what Shabbat Zachor reminds us: when you read the Purim story, read the whole thing. Hold both sides. Read and internalize the parts where we were attacked and vulnerable, but also read and remember the parts where we were the aggressors.
This is the Israel we are fighting for, one that can look both ways. I believe in this Israel, and I know it is possible because I have lived it. I saw it a decade ago with my students, who experienced Israel as a place of safety and refuge. Factions within Israeli society continue to be champions of the victimized. Israeli Member of Knesset Yaya Fink started a GoFundMe for victims of arson in Huwara, raising more than a million shekels to support rebuilding their homes and businesses. On the ground where a group of settlers perpetrated a chillul ha’shem, defiling our holy prayer in the light of such violence and destruction, other Israeli citizens are engaged in kiddush ha’shem, bringing light back to a place of hurt and helping to rebuild.
As it says in the Psalms,
וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ׃
May the goodness of the Holy One be with us. Let the work of our hands be productive for us, may our hands build goodness! (Psalm 90:17)
May we remember that we have the power to be heroes, for ourselves and others, and may we use this power to uplift, protect, and bring holiness into the world.