Saturday, April 13

The Dispossessed

Today, New Zealand’s Jewish community celebrates the festival of Purim. Purim is a fun festival with a fancy dress component that remembers the Jewish people being saved from Haman, an official of the Achaemenid Empire (Persia) who had planned to have all of Persia‘s Jewish subjects killed, as recounted in the Book of Esther (usually dated to the 5th century BCE).

Haman, along with a collection of historic enemies of the Jewish people, is said to be a descendant of the Amalekites, the “eternally irreconcilable enemy” of the Jews. This is a symbolic rather than literal connection. We stumbled upon this drash (sermon), originally read on Shabbat Zachor (the sabbath immediately preceding Purim), and thought it offered an interesting lens with which to reflect upon a range of conflicts and upheavals, including today’s political polarisation and the marginalization of certain groups in society. 

Republished with permission of the author, Gershom Gorenberg:

It’s been exactly 40 years since I saw a man stand up in a Jerusalem synagogue and give a stunning drashah for parshat Zachor – and then vanish as if he’d never been there. I never found him, but his words seem more relevant this year than ever. I wrote about it in 1992. Here’s the article:

Around the time of the Lebanon War, I had a rented room in the elegant old Jerusalem neighbourhood of Rehaviah, and often found an empty seat at an ornate, comfortable synagogue where the regulars included cabinet ministers, top officials and their soon-to-be-Knesset-member sons. 

Each Friday night a different congregant gave a short talk on the week’s portion. On the Sabbath before Purim, I dreaded the sermon. The Book of Esther says Haman was the descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites; the special reading for that Sabbath recalls how Agag’s ancestors ambushed the Israelites in the desert and commands us to “erase the memory of Amalek.” Given the shul and the mood of the day, I feared a tirade identifying Amalek with a present-day enemy and drawing ugly conclusions. 

I didn’t recognize the thin, balding figure who rose for the sermon. But as I expected, he roared: “The Torah demands of us, ‘Erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget!'” I sighed. 

“But this is a strange commandment,” he went on. “How can we both ‘erase his memory’ and ‘not forget’? And why should the commandment apply specifically ‘in the land that the Lord thy God gives thee for an inheritance’? 

“To understand, we have to look at how Amalek came into the world. Who was the original Amalek, the founder of the nation? 

“In Genesis 36, we learn Amalek was the son of Eliphaz, the son of Esau — the man who was dispossessed of his birthright and robbed of his paternal blessing by our father Jacob. 

“The midrash, in Bereshit Rabba, reveals the price paid for Esau’s hurt and resentment. When Esau learned he had lost the blessing, says the Torah, ‘He cried with a great and exceedingly bitter cry.’ The midrash cites the one other verse in the Bible where those words repeat: Mordechai responds with just such a cry to the decree against Jacob’s children — by Haman the Amalekite.” 

I leaned forward. This wasn’t what I’d expected. 

“But Amalek inherited resentment from his mother as well,” he said. “The Gemara says in tractate Sanhedrin: ‘Timna was a daughter of kings… she sought to convert. She came to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they would not accept her. So, she went and became the concubine of Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying: It is better to be a handmaid to this nation than a noblewoman elsewhere. From her came forth Amalek, who caused sorrow to Israel. Why? Because they need not have turned her away.’ 

“And be precise here: Timna was Eliphaz’s concubine. We know the fate of a concubine’s son — to be a second-class child, not accepted by the sons of his father’s wives, an outsider, with no place in the will, no inheritance.” 

The man at the podium bellowed: “Such was Amalek: the third generation of those we and others turned away, dispossessed, made outsiders — the heir only to resentment and anger. That’s what created the bitter tribe that attacked us in the desert when we were faint and weary. 

“Therefore, to erase Amalek’s memory, we must make certain not to recreate our worst enemy. For those whom we deny their birthright, those whom we discriminate against, leave out — they become the new Amalek. 

“When does our obligation fall on us most fully? When we are in our land when we have received our own inheritance. And even here, we cannot simply ‘erase the memory of Amalek’ once and for all; we must guard ourselves eternally: ‘Thou shalt not forget.'” 

He slipped back into the pews. I wondered how the self-possessed, powerful men around me had understood his message. 

After the service, I couldn’t find the speaker in the crowd. I never saw him in that shul again.

  • This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Report on 12 March 1992