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A 21st Century Hassidic Teaching on Shabbat Zachor

Remember what Amalek did to you as you were leaving Egypt…and when YHVH your God brings you to a place of rest from your surrounding enemies in the land YHVH your God is giving you as your portion, blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens — do not forget. (Devarim 25:17-19)

To understand why, the paragraph begins by telling us to remember what Amalek has done but then commands us to blot out the memory of Amalek. We further have to understand how the reading of Parashat Zachor prepares us for Purim and in this context also to struggle with our practice of celebrating on Purim a story that ends with thousands of people being killed.

The key symbol of our cycle of spring holidays is freedom. In nature, this is reflected in the image of rivers breaking out of the ice, buds bursting forth from cold branches and earth, people stepping out of homes and wrappings and new life entering the world. Pesah is at the heart of this cycle. On Pesah, we celebrate the Exodus. We tell the story of an enslaved people who were able to leave the land of their oppression and cross the Reed Sea into freedom. But the holiday cycle also teaches that this freedom is not an end to itself. As soon as the first day of Passover ends, we begin a countdown of 49 days leading to the celebration of Shavout, the celebration of receiving Torah at Mount Sinai and the acceptance of a commitment to the covenantal relationship with God. Slaves cannot take on the responsibilities of a covenant. The freedom gained on Pesah is meaningful only because it enables us to take on the committed relationship with God.

If Pesach is a necessary preparation for Shavuot, how does Purim prepare us for Pesah?

Our masters have taught that within the boundaries of this world chaos (tohu) always precedes a new creation. The seed in the ground falls apart so that a new plant can grow; death creates a path for new life. For those invested in the old order, this process can be terrifying. “The weak souls of the established world, the masters of measure and norm, are afraid of this fire. How can we live with this devouring fire, they ask, with this world-consuming blaze? In truth, there is nothing to fear. It is only the weak-spirited sinners and hypocrites who fear and tremble. Strong souls recognize this display of power as part of the world’s evolution, a necessary element in developing the strength of nation, humanity and of the whole universe.” (R AYH Kook, Orot, Zer’onim)

How much more is this the case when breaking out of oppression, and particularly violent oppression. Doing this calls for the power to overcome (lenatse’ah – Netsah) existing “realities,” a power which often carries within itself residue (reshimo) of the power of oppression itself. R Kook (in the teaching quoted) speaks of a secular movement that with anger and hate rejected Jewish religion as a necessary step in the rebirth of Judaism as a path of serving God (though the Zionists he was speaking of did not understand their endeavor in those terms…). Similarly, after the holocaust, it is not surprising that Jews were affirmed by the power of weapons over and against any non-Jewish people who were perceived as a threat. Can we follow R Kook and see this as a blessing, a necessary stage on our road to becoming a kingdom of Aharonite priests, lovers and pursuers of peace and wholeness?

Many of us go through a gentler version of this process in our own development. The harshness of adolescent rebellion is a necessary stage leading towards the creation of a whole and independent identity; and as some developmental psychologists teach us, it is only this independent identity that is able to succeed at committed relationships with other mature adults.

This is how the Holy Ari explains the Spring-rebirth cycle of holidays (Pri Etz Hayyim, Purim, Ch. 5). Purim is the lack of consciousness (dormita) within which the detaching happens. It is an upside-down time, a time when destructive tendencies are let out and celebrated. (Though the truth must be admitted, a large part of our ritual is about containing those tendencies. We allow them out in very specific time boundaries, in particular ritual settings; and we cover them with parody, jokes and alcohol. We make sure to simultaneously require practices of compassion and mutual responsibility. Perhaps this expresses an implicit prayer that the celebration of the parody lessens the need for the most extreme actualization.)

Without this process of rebellion and disconnecting, we could not stand as independent beings (benei-horin), free people, as we do on Pesah. The measure of our being truly independent and free on Pesah is that as opposed to Purim, on Pesah we do not hate the Egyptians. On the contrary, we fast for the loss of their first-born. We remind ourselves at the seder that the blood that was shed during the 10 plagues was the same as that which drips from our own bodies. It is only as independent beings, complete unto ourselves, that we can enter a covenant of love and commitment with God. Thus Purim leads to Pesah, which leads to the acceptance of Torah on Shavu’ot.

Purim is certainly one of the more dangerous stages of this process. It is very easy to get stuck in the rebellion mode, to be sucked into a vortex of violence, anger and retribution. This is why before we enter Purim, we read Parashat Zachor. Indeed, Purim is so dangerous that, according to some Rishonim, Parashat Zachor is the only Torah reading that every individual is required to hear. Parashat Zachor reminds us: “Remember what Amalek did to you,” because that memory is the source of the power to break existing bonds and create new realities. Do not forget the suffering inflicted upon you even though that memory leads to anger and chaos. But “when YHVH your God brings you to a place of rest from your surrounding enemies” when you have asserted your own identity as free and independent — “blot out the memory of Amalek” — then it is time to forget and let go because the anger is only an obstacle at that point. It is an old fear and anger that stands between you and being your full self.

And the Torah reminds us one last time — “do not forget” to let go at that point, because if you do not reach the fullness of Pesah, freedom that allows compassion even for those who hurt you, you will never be able to stand at Sinai in loving covenant with God.

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