Clap, dance, sing, against the darkness! - A Sermon for Purim
So my friends, I began this sermon endeavor a little over a week ago expecting to focus entirely on some of the deeper messages of Purim. I wanted to focus primarily on the conspicuous absence of HaShem and what Esther’s example should mean to us. I wanted to talk about HaShem’s involvement in our daily lives; about His grand design and about our stepping up in faith to do our part. One message of Purim certainly comes directly from Mordecai when he tells Esther, "… if you fail to speak up now, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from a different direction; but you and your father's family will perish. Who knows whether you didn't come into your royal position precisely for such a time as this."
You see, HaShem uses us. He gives us opportunities to grow in faith through our actions and deeds. We cannot be so arrogant as to think we know His will, but certainly we have a user’s manual in Torah; and we have the combined wisdom of our ancestors in Talmud; and we have the guiding parables and example of Yeshua. And if we still aren’t sure about what to do, we have prayer.
One could look at the grand scope of human history as a partnership followed by the fall and separation followed by a very long training session where we have had to re-learn how to act like that divine spark in each of us would have us act. Tikun Olam. I’ve heard it said that this concept of “repairing the world,” is really better defined as “repairing ourselves and our relationship with HaShem,” for by performing acts of Tikun Olam, we are loving the Lord and loving our neighbors as ourselves and thereby repairing the world.
In time, HaShem re-introduced himself to us through the Pesach story. He reminded us of His Love for us and His power. Throughout the wandering we were taught to fear the Lord and to revere His name. Skip ahead in our story to Purim where G-d’s saving presence is so manifest, but He is unnamed. Esther and the Jews fasted (and presumably prayed) for three days before she stepped out in faith, risking her life. G-d is the agent of change behind Purim but the change was made manifest by our own hands, by Esther stepping out.
We begin our festival year with Pesach by relying on G-d to save us; we end our festival year with Purim by owning our own capacity to transform our world under the auspices of HaShem where He writes the screenplay but leaves the acting to us humans.
Let me give you a personal example. Never in my life did I imagine that I, a nice reform Jewish boy would grow disgruntled with Judaism, question my faith, them marry a gentile. G-d writes an interesting script. That relationship would cause me to reexamine my faith over the years and actually brought me back to Judaism, stronger than I may have ever been. Next, He writes in an exciting yet controversial plot twist where I accept Yeshua as Mashiach and metaphorically go jump in a lake. Is G-d at work here? Lord I hope so because oy vey! the grief I’ve heard… Now, G-d did not tell Eva or I to take on the care for my niece and nephew, to school them, feed them, shelter them and love them. Nor did we receive a stone tablet text message telling us to put a roof over my father-in-law. However, His User Manual did, the Torah. We prayed like Esther, and we’ve stepped up to try and do what’s right. We may not be saving the whole Israelite nation but we are doing our best to save two little people and my G-d is all for that. Like Esther, we’re doing what we can (legally within the bounds of modern justice) to blot out the Amalekite in the life of these kids and their mother.
This actually brings me to the topic I really wanted to touch on today. After reading numerous commentaries and spending some time with the parashah, I would like to bring your attention to the Maftir reading. Let me recall it for you. It was Deuteronomy 25 verses 17 through 19.
"Remember what 'Amalek did to you on the road as you were coming out of Egypt, how he met you by the road, attacked those in the rear, those who were exhausted and straggling behind when you were tired and weary. He did not fear God. Therefore, when ADONAI your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies in the land ADONAI your God is giving you as your inheritance to possess, you are to blot out all memory of 'Amalek from under heaven. Don't forget!
In our Haftorah today, King Saul leads his army against the Amalekites and kills them all except for the king and the best cattle and sheep. Samuel rebukes him asking, “Does G-d have as great a delight in burnt offerings and peace offerings, as in obeying the voice of G-d? Behold, to obey is better than a peace-offering; to hearken, than the fat of rams…” As we read, Saul failed thus losing G-d’s favor and his kingship as a result.
The Torah describes many enemies of the Israelites – Egyptians, Canaanites, Midianties to mention a few, but Amalek is the only one marked for extinction. So who or what is this Amalek that G-d should tell us to so utterly destroy it?
Amalek was supposedly the grandson of Esau, Jacob’s brother. Midrash tells us that Amalek attacked us when we were newly liberated, newborn if you will, and not yet firmly on our path to the Promised Land. We were hungry and tired and they picked off our weakest members, the stragglers at the end who were probably the elderly and the children.
At this time of Israelite desert wandering, scholars say the Amalekites were nomads, living on the borders of Canaan, attacking anyone vulnerable for sport and for spoil. So Amalek began as a real enemy but ultimately became a symbol of wickedness.
Some sages say actual people or groups of people arise as actual or metaphorical descendants of Amalek and attempt to bring destruction on the Jews. Think of examples such as the Assyrians, the Babylonians, Haman and his sons in Persia, the Romans, the Catholic inquisitors and crusaders, Hitler, the PLO, Hezbollah, Iran’s Ahmadinejad, and Hamas.
Amalek has come to stand for pure evil. The struggle between Amalek and Israel is a struggle between evil and good. It is also a struggle between Amalek and G-d. The last part of Deuteronomy 25 verse 18 says, “He did not fear God.” And Exodus 17:16 says that G-d will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation. The Zohar says that Amalek is Satan and sages from the Middle Ages said Amalek means the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination. So one could view the Amalekites not as an external threat but simply as a paradigm of our own dark side.
Okay, so let’s look at the riddle in the last sentence of the Deuteronomy text, where it says to "blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven--don't forget!" How can you erase memory and not forget?
This is the question that plagued me as I read and prepared. How can we REMEMBER TO FORGET? If we remember what we’re supposed to forget, we’ve violated the command if we forget that we were supposed to remember then we’ve violated the command. It’s a paradox. Or is it?
I read several good commentaries and apparently there has been a great debate between the rabbis over the last couple thousand years in regards to whether or not we’re still supposed to “Blot out the memory of Amalek?’ The issue is whether we are instructed to commit genocide, to completely and utterly destroy our enemy. This is morally problematic in and of itself, and is especially troublesome after the Shoah. The argument goes back and forth with rabbis on each side of the fence.
Interestingly, I have a pair of “Friday Boys” who have visited me at work most Friday afternoons over the last year to lay Tefillin with me. These are Yeshiva boys from Chabad in Oak Park. One is 14 and the other is 16 or 17 and we’ve had some very interesting discussions. Yesterday I asked them what they thought of the “don’t forget to blot out the memory of” paradox of Amalek. Zelig, the 17 year old who does 99% of the talking, asked me a question back. He inquired, “Why wasn’t Esther punished like Saul in that after Haman and his sons were killed, she took possession of Haman’s house? Saul didn’t slaughter the Amalekite cattle and sheep and look what happened to him.” The answer of the Rebbe, he said, was that through her actions Esther caused Haman and his Amalekite sons to be killed and through her taking of Haman’s home and possessions, she was “blotting out his memory”. Now, by re-enacting the Purim story we are “remembering” to “blot out his memory” too. Saul didn’t understand this. Not only did he not slaughter the animals nor take possession of them but he also failed to kill the Amalekite King Agag.
Circling back, I know that Eva and I were placed together in this place for such a time as this in the lives of my niece and nephew. I don’t know if our roll yet is to provide them a safe place, a respite while their father figures out how to be a mature adult who no longer caused them harm or if our role is to actively weed his influence out of their lives; in other words, to “blot out his memory”. This place HaShem has put us in is a difficult one. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It’s nerve-racking. It’s pressure-filled and I don’t know exactly where we’re heading. I do know that I’m glad to have the User Manual, Torah, and our guide, Yeshua, along on the journey, even if we don’t have GPS driving directions for G-d’s plan.
Now, Purim is about a day marked for Jewish genocide that turned out to be a day of rejoicing. Tomorrow we'll turn things upside again, and laugh and forget our sorrow in silliness.
Once, when the Baal Shem Tov heard of a pogrom in a neighboring village he immediately clapped his hands and began to dance. His disciples thought he had gone mad and asked him what he was doing. He said, "The way to release the forces of good is to bang against the evil shell to break it and let the light shine free. Clap, dance, sing, against the darkness!"
Tomorrow let’s gather our light together and make this Purim even louder and stronger and merrier than last year.
So may you find a way to walk in harmony with G-d, fasting and praying like Esther. And may you have the courage to blot out the Amaleks in your path.
Shabbat Shalom v Chag Sameach!