Remembering Amalek, and Blotting Out his Memory with Love and Support

This Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world will read from two different sections of Torah. The weekly parasha is Vayikra, and in it, we begin reading the Book of Leviticus from its start. Then -- because this week is the Shabbat before Purim, Shabbat Zachor -- we also read a special maftir (concluding) section. I want to talk about both passages, as a way of framing this hard week of news in the world and also moving us towards Purim.

This Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world will read from two different sections of Torah. The weekly parasha is Vayikra, and in it, we begin reading the Book of Leviticus from its start. Then -- because this week is the Shabbat before Purim, Shabbat Zachor -- we also read a special maftir (concluding) section. I want to talk about both passages, as a way of framing this hard week of news in the world and also moving us towards Purim.

Let's begin at the end, with the special maftir. This passage -- Deuteronomy 25:17-19 -- reads:

"Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.  Therefore, when Adonai your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!"

Amalek, as this text explains, is the quintessential enemy of our people, infamous because when our ancestors were leaving Egypt, he picked off the stragglers. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to embrace the paradox of remembering Amalek while also blotting out his memory.

In Deuteronomy's portrayal, Amalek feels like a caricature of evil... so much so that it might be hard to believe that such an evil leader could exist. After all, what kind of person would do such a thing, purposefully targeting the stragglers, the weakest and most vulnerable members of society?  

This year, we don't have to wonder. Yesterday's direct rocket attack on a maternity hospital in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine took my breath away; the country's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called it an "atrocity." It seems that Putin has taken a play from Amalek's book, targeting not only civilians, but particularly those who are already in a medically vulnerable position (pregnant and birthing mothers, newborns) and least capable of fleeing.

And unfortunately, the spirit of Amalek is alive not only across the ocean, but also closer to home as well. A cultural battle is currently being waged here in the US, and trans, non-binary, and genderqueer youth are caught in the crosshairs. In Texas, the state Attorney General issued a statement declaring gender-affirming medical care for minors child abuse under state law; since then, the state has begun investigating families of trans kids (and the ACLU is already bringing lawsuits). Florida's Senate passed a bill nicknamed "Don't Say Gay" this week, banning classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary schools, and the governor there has signaled that he will sign it into law. While these acts may result in less direct bloodshed than rocket fire, they too represent a violent assault on already-vulnerable populations, as the additional struggles that LGBTQ+ youth face are well documented. In multiple ways, then, Amalek's spirit seems to be alive and well in our world today. Knowing this underscores the importance of marking Shabbat Zachor each and every year with a reminder to ourselves to remember Amalek in every generation; it is our obligation to confront and stamp out the evil that Amalek represents.

Standing in stark contrast to Amalek's violent assaults, this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayikira, begins with the phrase "Vayikra el moshe...," "[God] called to Moses." The word "vayikra" is unusual in a number of ways: the alef at the end of the word is written in a smaller font than the other letters (raising the question of whether it does or does not belong there), and in any case, the Torah's verb choice here seems strange (why "called" and not any of the more common verbs for speaking to someone?). A long string of rabbinic midrashim interpret this word and imbue it with great meaning. The commentaries envision God issuing a loving, personal invitation to Moses... calling Moses by name, summoning him to come closer, holding Moses as dear and beloved (which plays with reading the word minus the alef as "vaYikar,"  in which case the verse would be translated, instead: "And God was dear to Moses..."). In contrast to the maftir about Amalek, God's call to Moses at the beginning of Parashat Vayikra is a reminder of how we ought to aspire to be soft and gentle, loving and caring with one another.

We live in a world of harshness, a world in which Amalek's spirit takes many forms, a world in which the existential threats of the terrifying Purim story -- that evil forces want to wipe out and obliterate whole groups of human beings -- are all too real. But Purim, through its central mitzvot, tries to help us shift towards more of a Vayikra mindset, calling each of us into loving personal relationships with one another.

As we head into Shabbat Zachor this week, I want to issue three invitations to you, each one of which corresponds to one of the central mitzvot of Purim:

1) The megillah commands us to feed one another on Purim, sending portions of food to one another and feasting together. Here at Kavana, we've created an opportunity to participate in this communal sharing of food through this Sunday's hamentaschen baking event. Participants will bake from home (gathering in small groups either in person or on Zoom) and will bring the fruits of their labors to share at our community party next Wednesday evening. We also encourage community exchange of "mishloach manot ish l'rei'eihu" ("the sending of portions from one to another") on Purim Day next Thursday; Kavana partners are welcome to use the partner directory to locate neighbors who might enjoy a delivery of treats in support of community! In this way, we nourish one another.

2) We are also instructed to give matanot le'evyonim, gifts to the poor, on Purim. This feels like a direct response to the warning we read about Amalek... a statement that we don't want to become hardened or accustomed to cruelty, so we must seek to arouse in ourselves precisely the opposite impulse: to meet the needs of those who are the very most vulnerable. I encourage you (of course) to continue supporting our fellow human beings everywhere who find themselves under attack, from the Ukrainian people to trans and queer youth right here in the United States. Meanwhile, as a Kavana community, we will direct our attention over Purim to an even more local project: supporting the residents of two Tiny House villages in South Seattle. Between now and Purim, I invite you to cull your cabinets or go shopping for sheets or towels or toiletry items (see below for details); I ask that you do so with the intention of loving your fellow human beings in your heart. We will also have opportunities for people to contribute cash (or donate via Venmo) at our Erev Purim event, to purchase gift cards for some of the most vulnerable among us. As we tell the story of our own experience of vulnerability, supporting other in theirs is the least we can do.

3) Finally, just as we are commanded to read the Amalek passage each year, so too are we instructed to hear the story of Megillat Esther. There is an obligation to tell the Purim story in community... perhaps because it's really quite terrifying, and so by coming together en masse, with costumes and playful energy and levity, we make it so that we can hear the story without being shaken to our cores. As we listen, we will fulfill the command from the Deuteronomy passage above, using our noisemakers to literally blot out the name of Haman (a descendent of Amalek). Kavana has carefully planned an event for next Wednesday evening that we hope will work -- and will be super fun! -- for a very broad swath of the Kavana community. We want you there!! There will be story-telling and songs for kids, and a chance to fulfill this central mitzvah of Purim by hearing the whole megillah chanted. To sweeten the deal, we're throwing in cotton candy and a photo booth and a DJ... please come; it'll be a blast!

As we enter this Shabbat before Purim, then, we pause to acknowledge that unfortunately, Amalek's spirit is alive and well, and our world can indeed feel like a scary place. Drawing on the model offered to us in Parashat Vayikra for inspiration and on the mitzvot of Purim for tangible instruction, may we remind ourselves that we have more power than we think to support one another, to help the most vulnerable, and to spread joy in our wake.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum