Shabbat Zachor

A few texts on the theme of Shabbat Zachor

Shabbat Zachor is the sabbath preceding the festival of Purim on which the Torah reading often concludes with the following:

17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 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. 19 Therefore, when the Eternal One your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal One your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Deuteronomy 25:17-19

Let’s start with this by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner for the American URJ Ten Minutes of Torah:

The way to “remember” him, “blot out his memory” and then “forget” him is by realizing that we all have the capacity to be Amalek. And those who remember this may just be the only ones who have a “fighting” chance at breaking free of it and thereby freeing their own hostages within.

Or even more subversive – not only might we all be Amalek, Amalek could be us – part of a post by Rabbi Robert Scheinberg:

Our tradition recognized the terrifying potential of a literal interpretation of the Amalek commandment. Much traditional Jewish literature sees the commandment against Amalek not as a commandment to destroy an evil nation, but as a commandment to destroy evil. For example, Reb Simha Bunim of Pzhisha, a Hasidic rabbi of the early 19th century, noted that the commandment to destroy Amalek is phrased in the singular, rather than in the plural. It is not a commandment to one nation to destroy another nation, but rather a commandment to each individual to search and destroy the Amalekite tendencies within ourselves.

One passage in the Talmud protests against the idea that the Amalekite people are irredeemable. We read, “Descendants of Haman were students and teachers of Torah in the academies of Bnei Brak in the land of Israel.” (BT Sanhedrin 96b). The Jewish people are better off for the existence of these descendants of the Amalekites, because they were among the builders of our rabbinic tradition. If righteous people, students and teachers can descend from the Amalekites, then no nation can be irredeemably evil.

Thinking more about remembrance and forgetting here is a reflection I made for Holocaust Memorial Day in an article in the JC:

The wounds will never heal, though the pain of their existence may be dulled. We are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek, whose attack on the Israelites moments after they escaped slavery and crossed the Sea of Reeds is described in the Torah…

Perhaps what this enigmatic command tells us is that the memory of Amalek can be deep-seated and almost invisible, forgotten in a sense. By blotting it out, I think that it is to be deliberately obscured in favour of a different way of self-understanding.

We must not allow victimhood to dominate our sense of identity: in blotting out, we promise never to forget and never to be defined by powerlessness and oppression. We are a people who believe in redemption and who believe in hope. Never wildly optimistic, but always unimaginably forward-looking to a future that will be better. That is what it means to be a Jew.

And here with Yehuda Amichai from his poems Open Closed Open, I finish this brief excursus on Amalek, remembrance and forgetting. A wonderfully challenging poem, as enigmatic (or more) as Deuteronomy itself (translation by Chana Bloch):

ומי יזכור? ובמה משמרים זכרון? במה משמרים בכלל בעולם,

משמרים במלח ובסוכר, בחום גבוה ובהקפאה עמוקה

באטימה מחלטת, ביבוש ובחניטה

אבל שימור הזכרון הטוב ביותר הוא

לשמרו בתוך השכחה שאף זכירה אחת

לא תוכל לעולם לחדר לתוכה ולהפריע את מנוחת הנצח של הזכרון.

And who will remember? And what do you use to preserve memory? How do you preserve anything in this world?You preserve it with salt and with sugar, high heat and deep-freeze,

vacuum sealers, dehydrators, mummifiers.

But the best way to preserve memory

is to conserve it inside forgetting so not even a single act of remembering

will seep in and disturb memory’s eternal rest.

Sermon: Remembrance Shabbat and The 74th Anniversary of Kristallnacht

Two weeks ago I took a group of our teenagers, from the Kabbalat Torah class, on a trip to Amsterdam. We took the train from Kings Cross and met beneath the statue called ‘The Meeting Place’. The statue stands many feet tall and is the image of a couple in a tender embrace having met one another off the train (or are they about to go their separate ways?). Around the plinth of the statue you can find emotive representations of images of the comings and goings on trains through the years, including soldiers waving goodbye to loved ones through the windows of their carriages.

Last year, when I led the same group on a tour of the East End, we began our tour at Hope Square outside Liverpool Street Station where Frank Meisler’s monument to the Kinderstransport now stands. It is a monument that is smaller, more easy to sit on than look at, more filled with anxious anticipation than loving embrace and usually littered with the day’s fast food wrappers.

Our journey to Amsterdam was by train, a reminder of how we Jews and millions of other people in the modern period have transported themselves and been transported across continental Europe. It is often the case that though the tracks may have been renewed, the train routes may be the same ones that carried people to their certain deaths in the Holocaust. Both train station statues are images with which we are deeply familiar.

The image of the gigantic warm (in metal?) embrace of The Meeting Place in Kings Cross has played on my mind over the last couple of weeks. Reminding me of times when I’ve said goodbye or been welcomed home. The statue at the Meeting Place reminded me of those moments and more…

As we journeyed back from Amsterdam and travelled through to our stop-over in Belgium I was sat next to a young looking chap. He watched me as I began to look through a piece of Talmud that I needed to prepare to teach the following morning and when I put the book away he asked me if I was studying Biblical Hebrew. I explained that I was from the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in the UK and was bringing a group of teenagers back from Amsterdam. I asked him if he had studied biblical Hebrew and he told me he had, a little, and that though his family living in Belgium were Orthodox Jews when he had studied at Edinburgh University he had come to think of himself as a Liberal Jew and had grown to respect the rabbi of the small Liberal community there – Rabbi Mark Solomon. Did I know him? He asked. Of course, he was the rabbi at the LJS and my teacher.

We chatted for some time and he described to me his work in trying to advance the Flemish speaking nationalist movement in a similar way to Scottish nationalism and his political party’s efforts to undermine the far right nationalist groups with a positive, cultural aspiration for self-determination. I was a bit ignorant I must say, but then my only real understanding and experience of Belgium was a school trip to Ypres. As an adolescent we walked through battle grounds and war trenches – an experience that in spite of a dynamic and impassioned history teacher, has left me with little proper understanding of the Great War, except utter sorrow and incomprehension of the devastating impact of war on humankind. In contrast to the statues in Liverpool Street and Kings Cross, the memorials I remember have an imagery that is starker, colder, stone monuments or of the rows and rows of small crosses marking the resting place of so many soldiers.

As my grandmother prepared to move from her flat in Cambridge to Radlett, closer to her family, she handed me the Prayerbook for Jewish Members of His Majesty’s Forces, printed in 1940, with the signature of my grandfather and details of his father as next of kin, including address in Edgware. This now sits in my office alongside the same prayerbook from 1917, given to me by a congregant with information about the Jewish men who had carried it in their kit bags. At the same time my grandmother gave me a book that she joked probably meant her breaking the official secrets act – it was the Training Handbook issued to my grandfather. My grandfather never marched with AJEX, he said, according to my grandmother, he had marched enough, but I do remember his medals and the childish fascination I had with them. My grandfather was one of the King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens, since he was a German refugee who signed up to fight for Britain against the Nazis.

My grandparents were married in haste in the war, like many young couples. The resourcefulness and fortitude to get married even whilst war raged through the world I think is an incredible statement. I realise it may not have been a deliberate act of protest, but it seems to draw on the themes of the statue at Kings Cross, ‘The Meeting Place’. Companionship, fellowship, courage, responsibility, romance, love, hope; these are the themes that were rarely mentioned in my history classes. Courage, yes, but the others never as far as I recall. To pledge commitment to another human being, whom you love with every part of you, even knowing that you might be sent off on active duty to possible death is a remarkable act.

Frequently, I have found myself wondering about the total commitment to life shown by the survivors, the witnesses of the Holocaust, the Shoah, who have families, who rebuild, who dedicate themselves again and again to the hopeful future about which our Liberal Judaism yearns and aspires. Could I show love, compassion, commitment to truth and justice, and not embitterment and cynically despise everything that human beings touch? I don’t know.

I don’t know, because mine is a generation in the UK that has not experienced war, conflict and destruction on a personal and global scale like those before me. I have dear friends from university in the armed forces and when I catch up with them, I often feel just a little ashamed as I sit listening to their work. From the comfort of my warm home and in the security of my synagogue I preach a message of peace and conciliation and here they are risking their lives and saving others.

Mine is a generation that cannot comprehend the scale of industrialised murder that overtook Europe in the middle of the last century. We sit on trains that travel to and from destinations with names that send shivers down my spine. We pay tribute to the victims, the survivors, the resistance. But we cannot know, we cannot understand the meaning, in our liberal democracy, of 6 million Jews and 6 million other people being murdered just for being different. Or the mechanised war machine of the two world wars of the 20th Century which saw the death and injury of millions and millions of people. We cannot understand; for my generation it is incomprehensible how war, conflict and battling against the evil intentions of one regime can overtake the world.

We know from research in parts of the world where conflict is a reality for the population that it has an impact on the people – whether young or old. So we must redouble our efforts. The 21st Century did not get off to the most optimistic starts. Humankind has not exactly robed itself in glory. Truth be told we have lived up to the vision of the band of angels, described mythically in rabbinic literature, at the time of creation who understood that our existence would be filled with strife and falsehood. Yet, in the deepest, darkest moments of all of human history there has always been the glimmer, the sparkle of salvation, articulated in the words of those other mythic bands of angels who argued that our existence would be filled with love and deeds of righteousness.

The statue, The Meeting Place, says more about the potential for human contact that is embracing and tender. That tenderness is what we yearn for. The same tenderness described in the emotion of a son who finds comfort in the arms of his new wife after the death of his mother – as we hear described of Isaac in our Torah portion today. The family burial cave is a far cry from the war graves scattered throughout Europe or the monuments to mass burials for people without markers who were brutally murdered. But from the depths of mourning experienced by Abraham he returns to life, to carry on, to search for a future for his son and to build and build again in the relentless human ambition for progress.

In Liberal Judaism we would describe this as our constant aspiration for a messianic age, when we will truly live in peace. It sounds trite to say, but we must go on saying it and affirming it in our communities, in our homes and in society. If the memories of those who perished, of those who lived through the night of broken glass, whose very hope for the future might have been shattered, if the memories and deeds of those who have fought for our freedom are not to be in vain, we must pray. And our prayers must be more than words, else they might as well be blasphemous, taking of God’s name in vain. We pray that the peace of our prayers is realised and becomes the peace of our world. May the blood of life cease to be shed and may every person sit under their vine and their fig, with none to make them afraid. May this be God’s will and may we be worthy of it in our lifetime. Amen.