Rabbi Kenter's Musings

From the Rabbi's Desk
AJ Shabbat Musings Parashat Zakhor 5779
Thursday, March 14, 2019  |  7 Adar II 5779

Tomorrow night we begin Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat before Purim. We will read of Amalek and Agag, progenitors of Haman, the paradigmatic enemy of the Israelites and subsequently of the Jewish people. To whom is Purim addressed? What are the lessons to be learned from Purim, chronologically the last chapter in the Biblical history of our people? What is the message of Purim? What does it mean to be a Jew in Diaspora? What lessons are to be learned from the annual retelling of the Purim story? Why does Purim speak so strongly year after year?
Because Purim means that Passover is only a month away, and because the haftarah relates what happened just after we left Egypt when Amalek attacked from the rear, I'd like to read the Megillah through the lens of the Haggadah:
Shabbat Zakhor allows us to fulfill one of the 613 mitzvot: to remember Amalek and his descendants and to retell their wickedness. We are to tell our children in each generation what the people of Amalek did to us during our departure from Egypt, how they attacked from the rear of the line of march, opting to harm the old, infirm, and the young who would be at the back. As the Torah says: "Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, upon your departure from Egypt"... "You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget" [Deuteronomy 25 end]. As taught by the rabbis some 1,800 years ago, "Remember," in speech; "You shall not forget," in your heart.
I'd like to suggest the following riff on the Haggadah: 

Bkhol dor v'ador hayyav Adam lirot et atzmo k'ilu huh hayah b'Shushan: in every generation one is obligated to see oneself as if he or she was in Shushan. And we are one of the four principal characters, not unlike the four children of the Haggadah: The wise child is Mordecai; the wicked child, Haman; the simple child, Ahashverosh; and the one who does not know how to ask, she'aina yodeah lishol is Esther. For the latter, we are taught: at ptach la, you will instruct her how to ask. Mordecai teaches Esther what and how to ask. Esther who has hidden her identity, who has safely hidden who and what she is from prying eyes and from the King, is now told by Mordecai, "Perhaps for this reason who have been called to this estate" to speak up and to make your voice heard. If you don't maybe someone else will; don't think that you will escape because you have not spoken up. And so she does, the woman whose name with a slight change in the Hebrew vocalization means "I will hide myself," speaks up. As beautifully expressed by the American poet, Charles Reznikoff:

"We are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish!" The hands, heavy with rings, are Esther's but the voice is the voice of Hadassah."

There is an affinity between the questions asked by the four children, between that of the wise and the simple child, and that of the wicked and the simple. And so I have four questions for Purim:

  • What does it mean to be a Jew in the 21stcentury?
  • What does it mean to be a Jew in America?
  • How do we bring Jewish values to life inside and outside of Israel?
  • Knowing that Iran is Persia, without compromising who and what we are, how do we advocate for Israel?

"'All the king's servants, and the people of the king's provinces, do know, that whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden scepter, that he may live; but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days.' 

"And they told to Mordecai Esther's words. 

"Then Mordecai bade them to return answer unto Esther: 'Think not that you will escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews. 

"For if you remain silent at this time, then will relief and deliverance come to the Jews from another place, but you and your family will perish; and who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this?' 

"Then Esther told them to answer Mordecai: 

"'Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens also will fast; and so will I go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.' " [Esther, chapter 4 end]

Esther was willing to speak up. Are we? 

Rabbi Barry A. Kenter