Sunday, March 20, 2016

Confronting Evil - Reflections on Parashat Zachor 5776

In the weeks before Passover, Jews the world over read four special Torah portions. (These readings are in addition to the regular weekly Torah reading cycle, in which we read the entire Five Books of Moses cover-to-cover over the course of the year.)

Yesterday, we read the second of the four, Parashat Zachor. The text is as follows:
Remember (Zachor) what the Amalekites did on your way out of Egypt; that they happened upon you on the way and attacked the stragglers and all the weak ones in the rear when you were the most tired and exhausted, and they did not fear Gcd. Thus it shall be that when the Lcrd your Gcd establishes and makes you secure from your enemies around, in the Land that He will give you as an inheritance to possess it, erase (timcheh) the memory of Amalek from under the heavens - never forget (lo tishkach). (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
Amalek is archetypal evil. Amalek tells the world that there is no Gcd, no order in the universe, and therefore, no notion of good and bad. Amalek encourages war and chaos and destruction, because in that milieu he thrives - free to oppress the weak, to rape, pillage and plunder. Amalek is Haman. Amalek is Hitler. Amalek is Stalin. Amalek is every godless, Jew-hating despot who has trampled through the garden of human history.

Amalek viciously opposes both aspects of the Jewish national destiny - to be a Kingdom of Priests, i.e., to minister to Gcd on behalf of all the peoples of the earth, and to be a Holy Nation, distinct and set apart from the rest, focusing on our own spiritual development and maintaining our special relationship with Gcd.

Therefore, Amalek seeks to destroy the Jew, the conscience of the world. And it is against Amalek that the Jewish People must take a stand. That is the meaning and import of these verses.

But if we torque down on the verbiage used here, there seems to be an inherent contradiction. 

The opening and closing phrases of these verses are Zachor…Lo Tishkach - 'remember' and 'don't forget.' In opposition to that idea, we have the commandment to erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. 

Do you see the problem? If we successfully blot out Amalek from under the heavens, if we erase them and their memory from the history books (like Will and Ariel Durant tried to do to the Jews in their history of Western Civilization); if we really do that job properly, like reformatting a hard drive, there can be no trace of Amalek, and therefore nothing to remember. 

So which one is it: do we continually remind ourselves of their evil deeds, or do we reformat the hard drive of human history from any trace of Amalek?

And while we're asking hard questions, let’s pile on another: Immediately after the war with Amalek, Gcd tells Moses: 
Write this remembrance in a book, and speak it in the ears of Joshua: That I (Gcd) will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. (Exodus 17:14)
So who is supposed to be doing the blotting out - we here on earth, or Gcd on high?

To answer these questions, let’s come back to our first text, Parashat Zachor: First, how do we understand the seeming redundancy of Zachor-Lo Tishkach/Remember-Don't Forget?

There are several approaches to this problem.

The Sifri suggests that zachor suggest a verbal declaration, while lo tishkach is a commandment to keep this reality alive in the heart at all times.

The Malbim says that zachor is positive commandment while lo tishkach is a negative commandment, two sides of the same coin. 

The Ibn Ezra points out that lo tishkach is linked to, and intended to strengthen the zachor, meaning: even if you are not yet established and secure in the Land of Israel, not yet able to be pro-active against evil, always keep your passion against evil burning brightly.

Based upon this Ibn Ezra, one possible answer to our question is that the verses describe a sequence of events: the remembrance/not forgetting aspect of the mitzvah apply only before Amalek is eliminated. Once Amalek is successfully blotted out, the commandment to remember Amalek falls away.

Here is another possible approach.

Let’s look at the Hebrew word to erase, limchot. What is curious is that there is an even stronger Hebrew verb, limchok, to utterly blot out. It would seem that limchok denotes complete erasure, the language of wiping the hard drive. But the Torah doesn't use the language of mochek, it uses the language of mocheh. So what does mocheh mean?

Mocheh means erasing, as in scribblings on a piece of paper. And as any school child can tell you, no matter how hard you erase, some faint impression of what was written remains. 

Mocheh also means diluting or dissolving. Further, we see the word mocheh in the Talmud denoting protesting or annulling. 

For example, on Baba Batra 38b, a landowner can be mocheh, protest, against the illegal occupation of his property in the presence of two witnesses. And on Ketubot 11a, minors who are converted by their parents have the ability to be mocheh (annul or to protest) their conversion.

This understanding, taken together with the verses in Shemot/Exodus cited earlier, suggests the following:

Amalek rears it's ugly head in every generation. Therefore, in every generation the Jews have a moral obligation, a mitzvah, a charge - limchot - to dilute their influence, to protest their murderous actions, to annul their power with any means at our disposal.

But that job won't be finished in a single generation. Therefore, we have the parallel charge of zachor - to remember the evil that is Amalek; to remember that this war against Amalek will span many generations. 

As Rabbi Tarfon says in Avot 2:16: It is not your responsibility to singlehandedly complete the work [of perfecting the world]; but your inability to complete the task does not free you from the responsibility of contributing to it.

Perhaps this is why, even in the first encounter with Amalek, the Torah records that Joshua and his warriors were only able to weaken Amalek, but not vanquish them completely. [Exodus 17:13] Amalek survived to fight another day.

How do we dilute the influence of Amalek in the world? Any high school chemistry student can tell you that to dilute any strong concentration, you add more solvent. And the way that Rav Kook taught us to fight evil was not necessarily to confront it head on (although sometimes that, too, is necessary), but rather to flood the world with good: do more mitzvot, both in quantity and quality; study more Torah; reach out to our wayward brethren. By flooding the world with good, we dilute the power of evil.

Over the long span of time, through advances and retreats, every successive generation annuls, weakens, dilutes the influence of Amalek bit by bit, until the time of Mashiach. Then, the Glory of Gcd will be manifest in the world, and all doubts will be resolved. In that post-historical world, Gcd Himself will utterly obliterate evil from under the heavens.

May we all merit to witness that happy day.

Happy Purim.

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