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Amalek: Cowards and Villains of our Time #572

This a special Shabbat on the Jewish calendar, one of five which precedes Passover. 

This Shabbat, we remember villains. 

In particular, there is one group of Biblical criminals that has plagued the Jewish people since our Exodus from Egypt. They are known as Amalek. 

So who are they, and why is Judaism obsessed with them? 

The short version is this. Amalek was the nation that surprised the Israelites during the Exodus by swooping down and attacking the stragglers who trailed the main body of the Jewish people. 

I can picture them: the elderly, the physically and mentally challenged, single mothers and parentless children. 

So this week, we read in synagogue a special Torah portion, in commemoration of Shabbat Zachor, the “Sabbath of Remembrance,” which commands us to “blot out” Amalek wherever we encounter it. 

We must do so until there is nothing left of this cowardly nation.  Why are we so concerned about Amalek on this particular Shabbat? 

The story of Esther, which we will read this Wednesday evening on the holiday of Purim, reveals that Haman, the villain who hatched the plot to kill the Jews of Persia, was a descendant of Amalek.

See what happens, our tradition tells us, when you leave even one of your enemies alive. 

But each year as I read about the commandment to “remember” Amalek-I am faced with the same disturbing question. 

“What were the elderly, the physically and mentally challenged, single mothers and parentless children doing back there alone in the first place?” 

There is a fine line here-and we must take care not to blame the victims for their own tragedy-but let us consider, as members of a civilized society, “What is the responsibility of the strong and healthy to ensure that the weak and defenseless among us are protected?”

Shouldn't the vulnerable walk within the heart of our community, surrounded by support, care and compassion, rather than being exposed to the wolves of our day? 

It forces us to ask ourselves how far we've really come in the last three thousand years. 

Across the western world, as we crow about the health of our economy, extreme poverty is on the rise, as is homelessness, addiction, depression and communal tension. 

We teach our children that it is okay to bribe and cheat in order to get into the best colleges, as if the pedigree of the university we attend is a guarantee of lifelong success,

rather than the creativity, innovation, and problem-solving skills we bring to our work. 

It is our present-day tragedy that we hardly blink when a gunman-usually a social outcast-guns down the innocent, whether in a school, a synagogue, a church-or, as was the case this week in New Zealand, a mosque. 

Terrorism-today's all too common attack on the most innocent and vulnerable among us-is almost identical in strategy, and in cowardice, to that desert assault more than three thousand years ago. 

Who are the Amaleks of today? Iran, which continues to arm itself and terrorists against Israel. North Korea? Russia? White supremacists, who target and blame the “other” for society's perceived ills? Is it “Big Pharma,” benefiting as it does from the growing epidemic of opioid addiction? 

As we approach this Shabbat, the Shabbat to “remember,” these are some things that we need to consider. 

Someone asked me this week, “Why celebrate Purim, anyway?” The rabbis answer in two ways. 

First, they tell us that it is healthy to designate a holiday during which it is “mandatory” to leave our troubles behind and have some fun. 

We dress up in costumes, make noise, and tell the tale of a group of underdogs who used their faith and their commitment to action to overcome the mighty.

But the rabbis also emphasize that, before we begin the festivities, we must remind ourselves to look around, and ask, publicly, “Who are the Amaleks of today?” 

For as many modern day sages remind us, if we don't also protect the vulnerable among us-enfold them safely and lovingly into the hearts of our communities, rather than letting them struggle at the back-then we run the risk of becoming Amalek ourselves. 

On this, Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance, we are commanded before the happiest day of our calendar year to consider: who are the stragglers among us? 

If we are unable to answer that question, we risk leaving society's vulnerable open to the same cowardly attack which occurred more than three thousand years ago. 

That is what we need to “remember.” 

What can we do to blot out Amalek? Some initiate change through donations, others by volunteering, others through the political process. Only you know the answer. 

This week's Torah reading inspires us to consider that there are indicators other than economic which rest at the foundation of a civilized society. We must include within that base care, compassion, empathy, tolerance and kindness. 

It's time to reflect this week, and ask ourselves, “Who are the Amaleks of today, in our society and-if we're honest-within ourselves?” 

If we consider this matter with both focus and intention, we can only come to one conclusion. 

It's time to blot out any inclination to be bystanders. It is no longer an option. 

More and more, it's time that we assume our historical responsibility - as upstanders. 

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780