Tag Archives: Amalek

Hearing God’s Call by Recognizing the Godliness in Each Other

The entire book of Leviticus begins with the announcement: Vayikra – and God called out to Moses. Immediately after that, the text says Vaydaber Adonai Ailav — And God spoke to him. Why then must God first call out to Moses before speaking to him? God also calls to Moses as Moses ascends Sinai to experience revelation. Similarly, we learn that when Moses was a shepherd and looking at the burning bush, God called out to Moses from within the bush.

The divine act of calling out is a wake-up call, a reminder to pay attention. While God speaks to Moses immediately after calling out to him, God must first call out to him, to make him aware of the moment, to make him aware of what is happening, of what is about to be said, of what is about to take place.

This is also a reminder to all of us that we must answer the call. There is is a difference between hearing God’s words – Vaydaber – when God speaks — and answering God’s call – Vayikra.

As we prepare to celebrate the festival of Purim, we look forward to chanting from Megillat Esther, the book of Esther. With Esther in a position of power, she uses her authority and her position of influence as Queen to stop Haman’s attempted massacre of the Jews of Persia. Mordechai tells Esther in 4:13:

 “do not think because you live in the King’s Palace that you alone will be saved.”

He is essentially saying that hate does not discriminate and it doesn’t matter how much privilege you have – living in the King’s palace — or how much you conceal your identity to “fit in” – like changing your name from the Hebrew ‘Hadassah’ to the more Persian sounding ‘Esther’ as she does in the first verses of the Megillah. Hate against one minority is a threat against all minorities. Hate against another because one sees them as “the other” is the true form of injustice. And it was exactly being the other – the fact that Mordechai and thus all Jews worshipped differently than what Haman wanted or permitted – that led him to want to murder the Jews of Shushan. But maybe Esther would’ve been saved. Maybe Mordechai was wrong. Maybe as King Ahashverosh’s favorite Queen, living in the palace with a Persian name, she would’ve been spared. Which makes her openness to hearing God’s call to action all the more remarkable.

Megillat Esther stands out among the books of the Tanakh because God does not appear in it at all, or at least not explicitly. God is very much present in this text because “Vayikra” – Esther hears God’s call, a call to stand up and to speak up, a call to fight against persecution, hate, and injustice, not just because it is happening to her people, but because it is happening to God’s people, for we are all God’s people. The book of Esther is not just a story about the Jewish people being saved. It is a story about someone using their power, privilege, and influence to stand in unity with those in need – not because Esther was a Jew, but because Esther was Queen.

This past Shabbat, we were not just instructed to hear God’s call – and not only God’s words, but understand exactly what God’s call is. What does it mean? On Shabbat Zachor, we read of Amalek – we read about those who snuck up on the Israelites from behind as they were wandering through the wilderness, and attacked the women, children, and elderly. We read this on the Shabbat prior to Purim because we believe that in every generation, Amalek rears their heads again and that Haman was a descendant of the Amalekites. Last week’s tragic shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was the latest example of the hate of Amalek. The white supremacist terrorist who sought to publicize such hate by livestreaming the mass shooting and terror attack and by posting a 75-page screed on social media prior to the shooting that made reference to white pride, xenophobia, and President Trump, was also a descendant of Amalek. We are commanded in the verses of Deuteronomy to both “not forget” what Amalek did to you, and yet to also “blot out the memory” of Amalek. How do we reconcile both such acts, that are seemingly contradictory?

We are told to never forget such hate – never forget that hate is always lurking in the shadows. Amalek is always trying to sneak up behind us. Haman is always waiting in the wings. White supremacists are amplifying their voices through social media and through elected office, through a rise in bigotry, Islamophobia, Anti-semitism, and xenophobia. But we still strive to erase such hate – we strive to blot out such hate nonetheless. We do not let that hate define us, for we believe that we have the right to pray without fear – and so do people of all faiths, including our Muslim brothers and sisters. We have the right to gather in celebration without worrying about our safety.

Upon hearing the news of this terrorist attack, I reach out to my friends at the NIA Masjid and Community Center. Rabbi Rachel Marder and I, as rabbis at Congregation Beth El, along with our rabbinic colleagues in South Orange, New Jersey, joined our Muslims brothers and sisters at the NIA Masjid and Community Center for their Jumu’ah prayers. Why? That is how we blot out the hate of Amalek. That is how we ensure that hate doesn’t win. And yes, we could stay silent. Or, like Esther we could stand up and speak up. We could hear God’s call – Vayikra — and act. And be united. So how do we not forget and still blot out? By standing with our brothers and sisters, no matter faith or ethnicity. We answer God’s call by seeing the Godliness in each other.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Letting Go of the Hate

You have to wonder if the heat is getting to people or something! Every story in the news lately seems to be about a hate crime. While we celebrate the joys of life, it is hard to do so without reflecting on the dark moments that are going on throughout the nation. Two weeks ago, when one drove into the small town of Algoma, Wisconsin, one was greeted by more than just a welcome sign. Six signs, painted on plywood were pounded into the ground at the entrance of the town. Following the “Welcome to Algoma” sign and its population facts, there were signs that read “Jews go home” and “Kill all Jews,” signs that had swastikas on them. Such anti-Semitism, such hate and hate crimes, is not new for the Jewish community. Unfortunately, such hate isn’t new for this country either, and thus, it does not always seem to be news-worthy.

Just this past week, in a clear hate crime, two men holding hands in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan were beaten up by six other men, who accosted them on the sidewalk yelling anti-gay slurs. At the beginning of the summer, in mid-June, a seventeen-year-old entered a neighborhood in Santa Barbara, California, beating a man with a hammer screaming at him to get out because his kind was not welcome in the community. The 40-year-old man was of Mexican descent. The seventeen-year-old criminal with a hammer was going on a splurge of hate crimes towards the Hispanic community.  Hate crimes, bias-motivated crimes that occur when the perpetrator targets a specific individual or group because of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, are incomprehensible. The question is, how do we respond to such hate?

Four years ago, President Obama signed into law the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named after Matthew Shepard, on the ten year anniversary of the date when he was brutally beaten, and tied to a fence, eventually left for dead — murdered — in Lamaire, Wyoming because of his sexual orientation. The goal of this law was to expand the definition of a hate-crime and thus, to prevent such crimes from taking place. The quick news brief that I just shared suggests that such crimes continue, that such hate continues We need to continue to fight hate crimes, but I believe that legislation is not the only answer. What we truly need to fight is hate. Passing legislation does not end hate. Only promoting love truly ends hate. This sounds elementary and pediatric. Some may think that such an idea is immature or too simplistic. However, to love, to truly love, despite the hate that surrounds us is the most difficult, yet most sophisticated response we can take.

Letting go of the hateThat begins at the basic level. That begins with inclusion as children and that begins with inclusion as parents. That begins with acceptance of all, for all of us have felt excluded at times. All of us have felt hated by a stranger, hated not for something we have done, but for who we are or who we are not. Our natural response, our animal instinct, is to hate them back. Our animal instinct is to hate another because we feel hated. Instead, I want to push us to love. That is the hardest thing to do. To love instead of hate. To embrace those who have scorned us. Yet, that is what we are supposed to do.

At the conclusion of last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tetze, we are reminded of this. In the middle of Moses’ farewell address, the Torah portion ends with a dark reminder of what happened to the Israelites while wandering through the desert. While wandering, the People of Israel were attacked by Amalek. We are pained by such an attack because this wasn’t simple warfare. The warriors, the soldiers, were not attacked. This was not a battle. Instead Amalek snuck up on us from behind and murdered those who were in the back of our caravan, the innocent women, children, babies, and elderly. This attack, a biblical hate crime, has such a lasting negative impact on our collective memory as a people that anyone who has attempted to destroy the Jewish people is identified as a descendant of Amalek. Haman, who tried to murder the Jews of Shushan, a story which we reread every Purim, is considered by tradition to be a descendant of Amalek. Many in the Jewish community consider also Hitler to be a descendant of Amalek and more recently, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be a descendant as well.

Yet our Torah portion ends with Moses saying the following:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how undeterred by fear of God, they surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary… You shall erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

How can in the same verse, the last verse of the Torah portion, Deuteronomy 25: 19, it can say Teem’che et-Zecher Amalek,  to erase the memory of Amalek, and also command us Lo Tishkakh, to not forget?!

How can we be told to simultaneously not remember, but also to not forget? Ultimately, these are two different charges. “Do not forget” demands that we never forgot the painful events that we have been victim to throughout our history. Do not forget the victims of these events. Do not forget that hate and hate crimes are still reality. However, where do we go following painful events? Do we also participate in what can only be defined in 2013 as a hate crime because we were the victim of one? Do we stoop to the level of those who are so unfortunately lost in this world that they can’t see that we are each made in God’s image? NO. We can’t. We mustn’t. We are better than that. We must be better than that.

Radical rabbis (and even more mainstream traditional commentators) may suggest erasing the memory of Amalek means erasing Amalek, blotting them out, destroying the people. I disagree. It’s about erasing the pain, the hurt, and the grudge that is the result of such a hateful act.

In order to end the endless cycle of hatred we must be able to move on. To erase the memory of a scornful act is to give another a clean slate, but also to give us a clean slate. For holding the grudge is much harder. We too often hold a grudge towards another, not because of something that was done to us, but instead because of something done towards someone else generations ago. Like a modern day Romeo and Juliet – but hopefully with a happier, less Shakespearean ending, we must be able to accept that acts of another, from a previous generation, does not make them our enemy today. Instead, let us make that enemy our friend.

For the only way to truly bring peace to this world is through is through love. The only way to truly end hate is through love. The only way to love is to be willing to let go of the past, to let go of hateful acts, to be able to forgive. To forgive, but not forget. Lo Tishkach. To forgive, to let go, to promote love even when others preach words of hate, is to release a huge burden off our own shoulders

During this Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to the High Holy Days, during this time of Yamim Noraim , these Days of Awe and Amazement, we are taught to do Chesbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. We are not asked – or even permitted – to take such an accounting of another. It is not our job to judge another. Rather, we can only turn inwards, and reflect on who we are, how we act, whom we embrace, and how we can change. Leading up to the High Holy Days, we pray for a fresh start. But it doesn’t just happen. We make it happen – through love and through letting go. We make it happen through being able to forget, even if we never quite forget.

May we never forget the victims of hateful acts and hate crimes. Yet, may we – in the year ahead – be willing to erase the hateful feeling inside us. May we remember to love, so that this feeling is all that our children will ever know. To live in a world full of love! That is something that I would surely remember, and never forget.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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