February 2018, Shabbat Zachor

Dear friends,

This Shabbat is the Shabbat before Purim and is called Shabbat Zachor –Shabbat of Remembrance. Being that Jews are like elephants with very long memories and a tendency to let nothing go, one might be curious to know what it is we are remembering this week specifically.

What we are commanded is to remember what Amalek did to our forefathers as they left Egypt. How he surprised them on the march, when they were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in the rear. Therefore, when God grants us safety from all our enemies we are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the sky.

Lest you think that wiping out the memory of Amalek is a figure of speech, a quick glance in the Haftarah reading will quickly dispel any such hope. Shaul, the first king of Israel, was specifically commanded by Shmuel the prophet (Shmuel I 15:3) to fulfil this commandment:

“… And now, go and smite Amalek and destroy everything that is theirs; do not have mercy on them, but kill every man and woman, child and suckling infant, ox, sheep, camel and donkey.”

Shaul in fact went and acted on this instruction by killing every human including all suckling infants nursing at their mother’s breast, except the king, Agag whom he took prisoner. As well, instead of destroying all the animals, the Jewish army took the bounty. It is for this reason that Shaul is severely rebuked by the prophet and is punished by God that the Jewish royal dynasty will die with him and be replaced by the Davidic dynasty.

In other words, Shaul wasn’t rebuked for taking the instruction literally and savagely killing newborns, but rather, that he did not apply it 100%. That he showed mercy on the king and felt bad for the animals!

The questions that beckon are simple: How is this not the most perverse story we can possibly imagine? How is the commandment to destroy Amalek in such a way not absolutely abhorrent? How is this any different than the Nazi genocide of our people? Or the Pol Pot regime?

Dear friends, these questions I believe are amongst the most important to answer truthfully and courageously if Judaism is going to maintain relevance for our children.

The answer put forward by many is that we don’t understand the mind of God. That God’s mind is infinitely superior to ours and it is sheer arrogance to think it must make sense to us.

I recently read an article in which the author asks the questions above and even buttresses it by asking the following hypothetical: What if, in the 1930s, he was somehow given a time-machine that would allow him to see into the future and vividly see the Nazi atrocities that will unfold. What if, with the time machine, came a red button that would allow him to kill every last Nazi, including the little children and babies, would he do it? The answer he courageously gives, is no. he doesn’t think he would have been able to kill innocent children and babies. *

And yet God tells us to do this very thing to the babies of Amalek! How to make sense of this? To answer this question the author reverts to the above argument of God’s superior mind. He goes on to say that if God made absolute sense to him, he wouldn’t need a God, he could just be happy with himself. So somehow he must swallow his squeamishness and have faith that God’s wisdom reigns supreme.

The problem with this explanation is that the younger generations, whom we are conscious of ensuring stay connected with their Judaism, don’t buy that as an explanation. What we as rabbis often hear is the retort that if God can tell me to behave like the most savage primitive, I’d rather rely on my own moral judgement.

To many Jews in the modern world the idea that God stands above morality does not make sense. From a philosophical perspective to say God is good, compassionate, and kind, which is ubiquitous in our liturgy, makes no sense if at the same time God is above morality. If the word of God decides what is good rather than some independent moral measure, then there is no discernible meaning to say God is good.

There are also challenges from a Jewish point of view. The Rambam, in The Guide to the Perplexed, labels those who think that God’s commandments do not have to make sense as people who have a disease in their soul.^ He goes on to say that the Torah claims to be a book of wisdom and righteousness that anyone looking to it will be blown away by its content. It would appear that these two statements are at odds.

According to the Rambam, and of course basic common sense, the Torah was given to a people at a particular point in time. The people of that time were living with social norms that in many regards were extremely savage when compared to today’s social norms. It really wasn’t that long ago that we were burning women for being witches in America and England; imagine what it was like 3000 years before that! When we in fact look at the historical sources we quickly come to understand that total annihilation of an enemy was in fact common practice. So, that the Torah reflects that norm with the commandment to destroy Amalek, therefore, makes total sense. The question is what we do with that understanding.

It is very interesting to note that the Rambam ruled, in his legal work, that even a holy war against Amalek we must give the enemy an opportunity to make peace which goes against everything the Torah tells us in treating Amalek. It appears the Rambam was looking to ensure that the Torah’s treatment of Amalek would be acceptable in his time.

Today, thankfully, there is universal recognition that targeted killings of civilians let alone children in a war, amounts to crimes against humanity. The problem with fundamentalist extremists like ISIS and Jihadists is that they are applying the norms of 3500 years ago to today. There is simply no excuse today for having such a wanton primitive lack of appreciation for human life.

I know this conversation is a bit heavy which is why I think we do what we do on Purim. The halachic authorities tell us that it is a mitzvah on Purim to drink to excess.

As you all know, I believe in drinking responsibly and so I would suggest that rather than drinking to drown our bad feelings, we should go to a party which has amazing soul music and funky beats and spreads happiness. The way to fight savagery is by spreading the light for the smallest amount of light has the capacity to push away a whole lot of darkness.

As it so happens, there is exactly such a party going on at ARK Centre. This Thursday night 7.30pm till late, no kids, lots of good people, awesome music, delicious food, and the biggest dance floor in Melbourne. Ticket information is in this newsletter. Let us together celebrate our survival as a people at the same time that we celebrate human progress which is the whole point of the Torah that we hold so dear.

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach,
Rabbi Shneur