Parashat Tetzaveh has always been good to me, always inspiring. I’ve written some of my best musings on this parasha (well, at least many of them are personal favorites of mine.) I’m writing new thoughts this year more focused on shabbat Zachor and Purim, but I love so many of my previous musings for Tetzaveh, I wanted to point them out to you here right at the start. One of my all-time favorites is “Aharon’s Bells.” If you haven’t read it before, I recommend it to you. The “Urim and Tnummim Show” is another classic.Just two years ago I played with the origin of Judaism’s hereditary priesthood in “A Nation of Priests (And a Shtickel of Purim”) You can find links to these at more at the end of this post.
What follows is not a particularly coherent essay. As it often does, my mind wanders from place to place, and you may have trouble following it. Still, that’s why these are random musings. Someday, perhaps, I’ll take the time to edit and redact and follow are better homiletical form. (That’s one reason I sometimes revisit and change earlier musings.) If you ever have trouble following how I got where I went, don’t hesitate to ask! I might not be able to answer, but we’ll have a lively discussion nonetheless.
On Shabbat Zachor, we read, for the maftir, these words from Deuteronomy 25:17-19:
זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵֽאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם: אֲשֶׁר קָֽרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל־הַנֶּֽחֱשָׁלִים אַֽחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִֽים: וְהָיָה בְּֽהָנִיחַֽ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ ׀ לְךָ מִכָּל־אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָֹה־אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַֽחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת־זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּֽח:
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 the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Amalek’s failing seems to be two-fold. A failure to fear G”d, and fighting dirty, in that he picked a fight with a weary and tired enemy, attacking the weakest of them. G”d, apparently, does not approve of such tactics. It would also seem that G”d is not a fan of the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest. (Is it misogynist, gerontophobic, and misopedist to assume, as do many commentators, the most of the stragglers who were cut down mercilessly by Amalekite troops were mostly women, the elderly, and children? I suspect there were probably men, and not just infirm men, who happened to be near the back of the line who got caught up in Amalek’s heinous acts. Nevertheless, G”d, as expressed in Torah, does certainly have particular interest in our seeing that women and children are protected, so perhaps that explains why what Amalek did was so bad as to warrant a call for utter elimination. ) Hmmm.
We connect Amalek and Shabbat Zachor with Purim. Haman is identified as an Amalekite (which of course begs the question of why we hadn’t managed to wipe them all out by then.) King Saul is chastised and loses his Kingship for failing to strictly follow G”d’s order to destroy the Amalekite people and their livestock. Saul’s troops kill the Amalekites, but he spares the Amalekite king, Agag, and he allow his troops to keep some of the best livestock. Then Saul has the gall to claim that he has faithfully done what G”d asked him to do. Trapped, perhaps, in his greed and dishonesty, Saul claims that the spared animals were meant to be offered as a special sacrifice to G”d. Yeah, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn being sold.
We also have this issue of balance – following the principles that G”d has given us in Torah – the Lex Talionis – eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. It seems the retribution called for against the Amalekites goes far beyond balance. G”d commands Saul to kill all the Amalekite people – men and women, the young and old alike. Yet Amalek and his troops did not kill all of the Israelites. Is G”d’s retributive request fair? Avraham argued with G”d asking if G”d would kill the blameless along with the sinners in Sodom and Gomorrah. G”d agrees to spare for the sake of only ten (but apparently there weren’t even ten to be found, thus kaboom.) Is this the case with the Amalekites? Was every Amalekite evil? Were there no “righteous Amalekites?”
Where is G”d’s mercy in all this? G”d has given a most distasteful command. How would we have felt if Saul strictly carried out G”ds commands? Would we accept the claim that Saul was just “following orders?” I hardly think that would fly. We should have a problem with genocide, as both victims and perpetrators.
Some argue that Amalek has become an archetype, a paradigm of absolute evil. This may, indeed, be true. I’m not sure, however, that the original Amalek is wholly deserving of this. He became a convenient scapegoat. It has been suggested that Amalek deserves this because he was the first to attack the Israelites after they gained their freedom. Seriously?
The archetypal Amalek is not a person, but a thing, a concept. Like a corporation, you can’t treat it like a person (oh wait…) Thus it is easy for us to name Rome or the Nazis as Amalek. It is easy for us to simply hate and loathe them, to con sider them beneath contempt, to consider their lives valueless. Yet I harken back to what I wrote a few paragraphs earlier. Were there no righteous Romans or Nazis? How selective were the Maccabees or the Zealots? How, exactly, did Persia’s Jews in the Purim story know exactly which Persians to kill?
Which brings us to Purim. Given the catch-22 that the King could not rescind an order once given (and that’s a whole discussion by itself on the order of can G”d create a stone to heavy for G”d to lift) the only apparent solution left to the Jews of Persia was a a proactive defense against those who were going to kill them. We love to gloss over this part of the megillah, don’t we? At least, we’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with it over time. Yet, while people singing the more troubling stanzas of “Once there was a wicked, wicked man…” lauding the hanging of Haman is less common, it still goes on. Not everyone find the Purim story so politically incorrect.
Haman, might I point out, was not executed by King Achashverosh only for plotting to kill the Jews, but also for trying to seduce his wife! In Chapter 8, the King does say that Haman was impaled for plotting against the Jews, but the end of Chapter 7 leaves us with the impression that the swift and quick execution of Haman was brought about by the King’s wrath. (It is interesting to note that while Haman’s wife Zeresh is credited with planting the seed in Haman’s mind of what to do about the Jews, it is one of the King’s eunuchs, Harvonah, who suggests to the King the ready and handy availability of the stake at Haman’s house-upon which Haman planned to impaled Mordecai, who was, as Harvonah pointed out, a man whose words saved the King-as a suitable place to take care of Haman instead. It wasn;t Esther, and it wasn’t Mordecai. Convenient, eh?)
In an attempt to deal with the ugliness of the Purim story, some current commentators like to swing the pendulum a bit too far the other way. Yes, the fury that Persia’s Jews unleashed on those who attacked them was fierce and furious, but it was not, as some have come to call it, a preemptive strike. The King’s directive as created by Mordecai simply permitted the Jews to fight back and attack any who attacked them. Yes, there must have been a lot of Jew haters in Persia. In Shushan alone the Jews killed 800. Throughout the empire they killed 75,000. That’s a significant number, even in an empire with so many provinces stretching from India to Cush.
It’s interesting to note that, though the King’s degree allowing the Jews to assemble and fight their enemies permits them to take spoils, they do not. How prescient to know that one day Jews would become hated for their supposed stereotypical greed, and provide this counter-example. Yeah, we’ll kill 75,800 people (including women and children, a concept that commentators whitewash a normal for the time period) but we won’t take their stuff. How magnanimous of us. We so enjoyed “defending ourselves” that Esther asked the King for permission for the Jews of Shushan to have a second day of killing, er, I mean, self-defense.
Saul, it seems, had a conscience – of sorts. The rabbis of the Talmud comment that Saul reasoned that saving some of the animals would be necessary because they were needed to atone for the deaths of the Amalekites. (It’s interesting that the rabbis say Saul based his reasoning on Deut 21:1-9. In summary, those verses state that when a slain body is found in the open and the killer’s identity is unknown, the town nearest the site is responsible for slaying a heifer to absolve them of bloodguilt.) There are some interesting assumptions here – one, that in battle, killers are unidentified or unknown. I’m also not sure how Saul reckons the proximity issue, though the battle was apparently fought closer to where the Israelites were than the Amalekites!
Then, the rabbis make it really interesting by drawing from Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) 7:16 for G”d’s response to Saul:
So do not overdo goodness and do not act the wise man to excess, or you may be dumbfounded.
In other words, don’t be overly righteous. Wow. This usage by the rabbis in Talmud (Bavli Yoma 22b) and in Ecclesiastes Rabbah may be the single most troubling and challenging words I have ever encountered in our tradition. I know Judaism is about balance in all things, and we do need our yetzer ra to balance our yetzer tov. But how can one be too righteous? I think the rabbis conveniently ignored all the other verses in Qohelet surrounding this one. Or not. Maybe they wholly subscribed to the ineffable G”d theory. We don’t know why G”d wants us to do these horrible things, but so what? It’s what G”d wants. This, from the religion fathered by questioners like Avraham?
Yet ours is a mixed tradition. G”d and the early Israelites certainly appear to be misotramontanists. Anything that was “other” in terms of praxis, ritual, and belief seems to be anathema. Amalek, or the concept that Amalek has become, is now equated with the “other.” The “goyim.” We continue to embrace our ancestors’ fear and hatred of those who are not us. This provides us with all sorts of rationales. It is up to us to constantly examine these rationales, and question them. I have Christian friends who tell me they believe there is surely one carpenter/rabbi who would have found Amalek worthy of redemption. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s an interesting thought. Is there a way for Judaism to find redemption for Amalek without following the path that the religion of Paul follows (for it is really Paul’s religion, and not that of the carpenter/rabbi.)
So I’ll make some attempt to wrap this all together. It seems that fighting dirty is not endorsed by G”d, except when G”d wants us to fight dirty. I guess G”d can make a rock too big for G”d to lift after all
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Tetzaveh 5772-Perfection Imperfect
Tetzaveh 5770 – A Nation of Priests? (And a Shtickel of Purim)
Tetzaveh 5768-Light and Perfection
Tetzaveh/Purim 5767-The Urim & Thummim Show (Updated)
Tetzaveh 5766-Silent Yet Present
Tetzaveh 5765 and 5761-Aharon’s Bells
Tetzaveh 5764-Shut Up and Listen!
Tetzaveh 5763-House Guest
Tetzaveh 5762 (Redux 5760)-The Urim and Thummim Show
Tetzaveh 5758-Something Doesn’t Smell Quite Right