D’var Torah For Friday, March 3, 2022

This week we will be reading from Parashat Tetzaveh. It begins with a conversation about the Ner Tamid, the Eternal light, and then continues with a detailed examination of the creation of the Priestly vestments for Aaron and his sons. In addition to reading from Tetzaveh, 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 on Monday night, with a Purim carnival this Sunday.

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.

It is very curious how we choose to observe Purim. This is a festival where we survived oppressors who sought to destroy us, but we survived. The other celebration of survival is Chanukah. There we light the Chanukiah, sing songs and eat delicious fried foods. On Purim we sing songs, cast lots, read from the Megillah, and eat hamantaschen. But there is an added element, the tradition of the purimspiel.

The origins of the purimspiel dates back to the 1500s where bands of roving entertainers, often poor students, musicians, acrobats and the like, would perform for various Jewish communities. Over time, it evolved into the raucous and boisterous musicals that they are today. What many of them have in common is that we mock Haman and his ilk. It is not that we celebrate his destruction and the killing of his 10 sons, rather, we strive to make him look weak and feeble against the cunning and wisdom of Esther and Mordechai.

The use of humor as a weapon against our oppressors has been a relatively constant thread in our more recent history. It is both a way of detaching ourselves from the horrors we have experienced and continue to experience as well as a coping mechanism. Humor, through this lens, does not diminish, rather it strengthens and emboldens.

We continue to live in challenging times, and may we find the strength to continue to light the flames of the Ner Tamid, and the courage to laugh. For in laughter, we can find hope. For in laughter we can find fortitude. For in laughter we can find the strength not only to endure, but to persevere against all those who would seek to do us harm.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach,
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff