Wednesday, March 1, 2023

In This Moment: Israel at the Precipice; The Mitzvah of Memory; Purim Jokes from the John

In This Moment

Cantor Kaplan leading last weekend's lovely post-Shabbat music & Havdalah

Shabbat Shalom

This weekend brings us to March, which apparently now is the onset of winter. Yes, the first snow was somewhat delayed for us this year, but they just got plenty in, of all places, L.A. No big deal - upending norms is what Purim is all about, and what Purim prepares us for, Jews have come to expect the unexpected in our long and topsy-turvy history.

On Friday night we once again join with hundreds of synagogues in the annual celebration of Shabbat Across America. We'll be joined by TBE congregant and CT State Representative Matt Blumenthal, who will speak during the service.

This is also Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, which always occurs on the Shabbat before Purim. Here's some more background....

Zachor: The Mitzvah of Memory

In Maimonides’ register of the 613 mitzvot, Zachor, the commandment to remember the evil of Amalek, takes up three spots at the tail end of his mitzvah list.

598: Wipe out the descendants of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19) 

599: Remember what Amalek did to the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 25:17); 

and 600: Not to forget Amalek’s atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert (Deuteronomy 25:19)

Now, after Auschwitz, Zachor has gained many new shadings of meaning.

For one thing, it is a call for vigilance in the face of evil. “Never Forget” and “Never Again” have become our prime rallying cries, much closer in significance to Commandment #1 than 600. But even though the commandment speaks of wiping out the memory of an enemy, Zachor has never really been about bloodthirsty revenge. Through the centuries, commentators like Maimonides looked for ways to reinterpret this call so that it would not appear so genocidal, by asserting that since Amalek no longer exists as a nation, the command to entirely wipe out a national population no longer applies.

Early Hasidic commentators tried to internalize Amalek. They met the enemy, and Amalek is us. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev wrote:

Not only are Jews commanded to wipe out Amalek, who is the descendant of Esau, but each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart. When the power of evil in each of us arises, Amalek is present in the world. 

After the Holocaust, that call to wipe out our inner Amalek resonates at a time when so many have sought vengeance in the name of Jewish victims. Zachor was the inspiration for Baruch Goldstein’s murderous spree in Hebron on Purim of 1994, when he took the commandment, which is inextricably connected to that holiday, and played it out in grotesque fashion by murdering 29 Muslims at prayer. After that horrific distortion of even the most extreme interpretation of Zachor, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, added:

Such an act is an obscenity and a travesty of Jewish values. That it should have been perpetrated against worshippers in a house of prayer at a holy time makes it a blasphemy as well . . .Violence is evil. Violence committed in the name of God is doubly evil. Violence against those engaged in worshipping God is unspeakably evil.

Given the rampage (some call it a pogrom) perpetrated on the Arab village of Hawara last weekend following the reprehensible killing of two Jews, and the support the rampagers received from government officials, this Purim could well see more Baruch Goldsteins emerge.

Here are some more new shadings of this commandment of Zachor for our time:

When we remember the evil of Amalek, that commandment specifically about keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust itself.

Zachor is not a call to punish the villains or simply to remember the Holocaust as a singular event. Rather it is a call to remember the victims—each individual, those who were killed and those who have clung to life. Our task is to ensure that never again should a cry from the depths of despair, danger and loneliness go unheeded— from anywhere and anyone, not just victims of the Holocaust itself.

The commandment is not simply to remember the victims but to remember their stories, their legacies and most of all, their names. Names are the currency of memory. In the Holocaust, Jews and other victims were denied their names, and therefore their humanity, their individuality and their uniqueness. Victims were stripped of their human dignity. Their names were replaced by numbers. Their shoes, jewelry and clothing were ripped from them. Even their hair, perhaps a human’s most distinct, individuating feature, was shorn. To have a name is to be unique, loved and connected. The book of Proverbs states that while most things in life are transitory, a good name lasts forever.

And Zachor is not simply a call to preserve the memory of one dark chapter in history, but to preserve all historical memory, “Never forget” means to remember that there is an authentic basis for experienced truth, that facts matter and we should be accountable to them. The sin of Holocaust denial murders each victim yet again, by murdering their memory.

So the commandment Zachor, as filtered through the Holocaust, has come to mean that we’ve got to remember and to cherish the uniqueness and sanctity of every human being, down to even the smallest shreds of their existence—every strand of hair, every single letter of every name.

Which, incidentally, is why Nazis hate Jews—then and now. Nazis have always been about numbers, while Jews have always been more about names. The second book of the Torah is called “Shmot,” “names.” Jews refuse to forfeit the distinctiveness of each human being. Jews refuse to degrade anyone’s sanctity and dignity, body and soul. In fact, the Hebrew word for soul, neshama, has the word shem—name—right at its heart. Jews are, after all, Semites—descendants of Noah’s son Shem—so Jews are literally “Name-ists.”

And the hater of Jews is, by definition, an anti-Shemite—the “Denier of names.” One who defiles God is one who perpetrates what is called a “Hillul ha-shem,” a desecration of the Name; and one who dies the holiest of deaths, as a martyr, dies, “Al Kiddush hashem,” in an act of ultimate sanctification of the Name.

When Jews say the Mourner’s Kaddish, after Auschwitz there is an added purpose. We are praying not only to restore the sanctity of God’s name in the traditional sense, but also to affirm the infinite value of each human life. The words of this ancient prayer call for the restoration of cosmic wholeness in the face of a shattered present, and that wholeness can only be achieved through the renewal and re-sanctification of the “Great Name.”

Ultimately, Zachor is not a commandment at all, but a destiny. For we know that no matter what we do, Amalek won’t let us forget Amalek. Amalek has a way of popping up every so often to remind us never to forget. These days it seems to be popping up quite a bit. As King Saul discovered in his day and Mordechai in his, there is something in the very nature of the universe that won’t allow us to destroy Amalek completely. And yet we must never stop trying.

We must never forget to blot out the memory of genocidal evil. 

Since Auschwitz, Zachor has become the most important commandment.

Portions of this essay adapted from my book, Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously (Ben Yehuda Press) 


  • Recovering the Lost Sisterhood of Vashti & Esther (Moving Traditions) Often we talk about who the better queen or the better feminist was. But today let’s explore something else: what if Esther and Vashti had a chance to be in a community together? Vashti, the leader who says no, I’m leaving, I’m in charge of my own body. I’m willing to risk everything for what I know to be right. And Esther the leader who takes her time, considers her choices and how to stay safe, calls upon her community for support, and leads her people to safety. What could they have learned from each other?

Jokes from the John...

John Graubard, that is. Our resident source for Purim jokes. Here's what he shares with us for this year...

A Buddhist monk goes to a (kosher) hot dog vendor and says, “Make me one with everything.” 

The vendor hands him a Hebrew National hot dog on a bun with mustard, ketchup, relish, onions, and kraut. He then says, “That will be four dollars.”

The monk hands the vendor a $20 bill. The vendor puts it in the cash box but doesn’t give anything back to the monk.

The monk says, “Don’t you owe me something?” The vendor relies, “Change must come from within.”



A customer at a Jewish deli orders chicken soup. A few minutes later the waiter returns with a bowl of soup. The customer tells the waiter, “It’s not hot enough; take it back.”

“But you haven’t tasted it,” says the waiter. “How do you know it’s not hot enough?”

“Because your thumb is in it.”



I didn’t think I needed orthopedic shoes, but now I stand corrected. (Source – Alan Jaffe)



A priest, a minister, and a rabbit all walk into a bar. The bartender says to the rabbit, “What will you have?” The rabbit replies, “I don't know. I’m only here because of autofill.”




An older man in San Diego is parking his car when he slightly touches the new Ferrari in the next space. The 20-something owner of the Ferrari sees this and is furious, demanding that the older man pay him $10,000 or he will beat the man up.

“I don’t have $10,000,” says the older man. “But I will call my grandson who works with dolphins, and he will help me.” So he gets on the phone and tells his grandson what happened.

About 10 minutes later a black SUV pulls up, and four large men get out. One of them walks over to the Ferrari owner and tells him to leave his grandfather alone or he will be the one on the receiving end. The Ferrari owner immediately gets in his car and drives off.

The older man says to his grandson, “I knew you would take care of it.” The grandson replied, “No problem, gramps. But please try to remember that I don’t work with dolphins. I work with Navy Seals.

We could use a little more moral ambiguity at a time when people increasingly demonize the Other, rather than humanize. So why not compare Haman to Elphaba from “Wicked?” In truth, Haman’s already taken up residence in the Emerald City. After all, in Hebrew, Hamentaschen are called, literally “Haman’s ears, or “OZ-nay Haman.” Check out this essay on my substack pageAnd while you're there, feel free to subscribe! It's free!

Some of my favorite Purim costumes...

Israel's Greatest Crisis

Things continue to go from bad to worse. The cycle of terror and reprisal has intensified, particularly on the West Bank, and the rush headlong toward absolute rule seems inexorable. But the people are fighting back. TBE's Pinchas Gross, who is in Israel this week, reports that he joined over 100,000 on the streets last Saturday night, and he sent me this video (click on photo) of the massive strikes taking place in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. The demonstrations had been primarily peaceful, but things heated up on Wednesday. See this report from Times of Israel: "As protests sweep nation, police use aggressive means to clear Tel Aviv rally."

Cops, for the first time since protests began some two months ago, deployed tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons to disperse demonstrators near the Azrieli towers. At least 11 people injured in clashes with police arrived in hospitals for treatment for various bruises, cuts and burns. One man was said to have lost an ear, apparently after being hit with a stun grenade.

It is my hope that by now, American Jews, those of us who love Israel, are beginning to understand the urgency of this moment. Israel has known many existential, life and death moments in it's brief history. This feels like it could be the greatest threat of all. This is no time to be coddling the Prime Minister (memo to Chuck Schumer and the Conference of Presidents), but for laying down strict red lines.

This Week's Hebrew Headlines

(see today's English Ha'aretz front page at bottom)

"Attack follows attack...." "Terror Wave: 14 killed in attacks within the past month." (Including West Hartford native Elan Geneles, remembered for his wit and friendship.)

"Eighth week of protests: More than 200,000 protesting all over the country." "Netanyahu to his ministers, opposing the protesters: 'I want to give you a fist to fight them with.'" And below see today's (Thursday's) front page (headline says "Day of Battle.") Click on it to see full-size pdf.

The bestselling author of "Sapiens" cries out a warning this op-ed which appeared in translation in the Washington Post. "I have never seriously considered leaving Israel. But I doubt I would stay in a place that lacks meaningful protection for minority rights and free expression." Harari writes:

Under the new legal regime, it is unclear what would prevent either the present government or a future one from passing laws that, for example, close down opposition newspapers, deny workers the right to strike, abolish academic freedom, criminalize homosexuality, outlaw Arab parties, disenfranchise Arab citizens or — perhaps most crucially — change the electoral system itself in a way that would guarantee a permanent hold on power.
When asked what would preclude such scenarios, protect minority rights and shield even the majority of citizens from governmental abuse of power, coalition members answer, in effect: “Our goodwill. Trust us.” This is a blood-curdling answer, familiar to the victims of every tyrant, mobster and abusive spouse in history. Dictators always say “trust us, we will protect you. But be careful not to lose our goodwill, yes? We don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” If you happen to meet anyone describing the antidemocratic coup in Israel as a benign democratic reform, there is one key question to ask them: “Explain to me: What mechanism would limit the power of the government under the new regime? Is there even one thing that the government will not be allowed to do?”

  • 134 Zionist historians, in Israel and the diaspora, wrote an open letter expressing similar fears. "Since its establishment, there has never been a graver political crisis in Israel that poses such an immediate danger to the very existence of the state."

Other Recommended Reading

Adar 9 (Today) is a special but virtually unknown commemoration in the Jewish calendar. The 9th of the Hebrew month of Adar marks the day that, two thousand years ago, healthy disagreements “for the sake of Heaven” between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai turned destructive. Today it is marked in some circles by discussions of sources related to the conflict itself as well as to how the rabbis resolved so many others before they reached this point. See the packet of rabbinic sources. And see this current article on a related topic: How not to cancel each other (Salkin, RNS).

  • ‘Our state is at war with our family’: Clergy with trans kids fight back (WaPo) - “Daddy, do you think God could make me over again as a boy?”
Rabbi Daniel Bogard had just finished reading a story to his 6-year-old twin daughters one evening in 2019 when the older one by 15 seconds asked that question. Bogard wasn’t sure what to say, so he tucked them into bed, kissed them good night and left.
“It shook me,” he recalled. As the months passed, and the child began asking people to use “boy words” to refer to him, cropping his hair short and joining the boys’ soccer team, the change just seemed to make sense. Friends, family and schoolmates accepted him as a boy, and he flourished.
All of which had brought the family to this fateful moment three years later. As Bogard and his now 9-year-old son piled into the family minivan at dawn for one of their regular four-hour round trips to the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City to share their story with lawmakers, the rabbi worried what might lie ahead. Bills “to protect children,” as some Republicans described their measures restricting gender-affirming health care and limiting how schools treat gender identity, have become this year’s rallying cry in this state and elsewhere.
“Our state is at war with our family,” Bogard said. “It’s not an exaggeration that we are up at night talking about when and how far we might have to flee.”

Clean hands and a pure heart: Parsha Packet for Tetzave. This packet came out right at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. it might have been our last in-person service. It's a veritable time capsule of a terrifying moment.

Intro to Judaism Class

My Intro to Judaism Class begins this evening (Thursday) at 7 PM. All are welcome, We already have about 50 signed up. Please register in advance if you can. Here's a sneak preview - our study packet on Jewish ethics Also see this list of Jewish Values (Middot) based on Tractate PIrke Avot 6:6. Click below for the full packet.

Click to see pdf of the full front page

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