D’var Torah for March 10, 2017

This week we will be reading from Parashat Tetzaveh. Its main focus is on the Ner Tamid, the Eternal light, and the creation of the Priestly vestments for Aaron and his sons. This week also is Shabbat Zachor. Throughout the year we have special haftarah portions that are connected to upcoming holidays and festivals. This Shabbat is no different as it is the Shabbat right before the festival of Purim, which we will be celebrating tomorrow night.

This week we are supposed to read from both Deuteronomy 25:17-19 as well as from I Samuel 15:2-15:34. The reason for this is we are supposed to recall the attack by the Amalekites upon the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness. The Amalekites attacked the most vulnerable elements of the Israelite community, the children and the elderly who were at the rear of the pack.

This is why God commands us to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut. 25:19). By tradition King Agog, who appears in I Samuel, was a descendant of the Amalekites. King Saul was commanded to utterly destroy him, which Saul failed to do. It was ultimately Samuel who had to step in for Saul, who fulfilled this command. This was also why the kingship was stripped from Saul. Later on, in Megilat Esther, the scroll of Esther, Haman was described as an Agagite. The rabbis connect him to the line of Amalek, with Haman being the last of the descendants. Hence the connection between the Torah portion, the Haftarah portion, and the observance of Purim.

But there is another possibility going on here. Recently I had the pleasure of studying with Rabbi Joshua Garroway, PhD., one of my classmates and now professor at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Garroway proposed, based on a close examination of a particular Hebrew phrase yerat Elohim, fear of God, that perhaps what was going on here was the Israelites failed in their wanderings. The reason why they are supposed to remember what Amalek did to them was because they failed to protect the most vulnerable members of their community from attack. The Israelites knew they were exposed, and rather than encompass those most vulnerable with those most strong, they made a choice to leave them exposed.

It was not an easy lesson to hear. Throughout every generation we were taught to remember Amalek for what he did to us. For the first time we were hearing, remember Amalek for what we allowed him to do to us.

Over and over again we are commanded to take care of the poor, the widow, the stranger, the orphan, the blind, the deaf, the abject poor and the like in our midst. And if we read this week’s additional portion through new eyes, we can see that what happens to them is a direct reflection upon the choices we make as a people, as a community and as a society.

May we be reminded this Shabbat to think of the most vulnerable in our midst. For how they fare is truly a reflection upon us as a greater society.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff