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