purim scroll and maskThe Shabbat before Purim is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat to remember Amalek attacking Israel from behind, where the old and weak were bringing up the rear of our ancestors on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The text says: 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 the stragglers in your rear (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). We are then commanded in verse 19 to remember the evil Amalek perpetrated, second, to wipe out his descendants, and third, to blot out his name.

Looking at the text more closely, please remember that the Torah has no punctuation or capitalization; the phrase “undeterred by fear of God could refer to the Amalekites or the Israelites. Was it that the Israelites had let their guard down? Could they have protected those who lagged behind? Amalek attacked at our weakest point, where we were most vulnerable. The attack on the Israelites was terrible, attacking those most vulnerable and least likely to be able to protect themselves. Maybe what we are to learn from this, to remember, is our obligation to care for those who are more vulnerable.

Lessons learned are important in moving forward. According to rabbinic tradition, Haman descends from Amalek, and so, on the Shabbat preceding Purim, we recall the dark origins of the Purim story. Purim is about a threat to Jewish survival, according to the Book of Esther from Haman's plan to kill the Jews. Nothing is quite as it seems. The name Esther itself suggests "hidden," we disguise ourselves with masks, and the story of the Jews being saved is nahafoch hu, a turning of the tables and all coming out quite the opposite of what Haman planned. Esther’s first response to Mordechai’s request for her to intervene with the King on behalf of the Jewish people is one of fear. She has hidden her identity as a Jew in the royal court. Sometimes our first reaction to a threat is to take a step back. Esther took time to think, reflect, and pray. She then asks the Jewish people to fast with her and her court for three days before she appears before the king uninvited. She saves the Jewish people, but before they can rejoice, they need to kill or be killed, so a large battle takes place on Purim. Then they can celebrate their being saved. We often recoil from the violence in the later part of the Megillah. Did it have to be that way? We want to pursue other ways to resolve survival conflicts, if possible. The fight for Jewish survival continued throughout Jewish history.

The attack on Israel on October 7th shocked and horrified us all. The attack on people in Israel’s Gaza Envelope (the area near the Gaza border) by Hamas terrorists was horrible, and it was calculated to attack at points of vulnerability. Investigations and inquiries about the weak links in security for the people in that region will happen in the future. First things first, we continue to work for the release of the hostages still in Gaza and for the displaced people in Israel and beyond struggling in the aftermath of the tragedy and ongoing war.

One question for us to consider is: What will we remember and blot out? We need to remember that threats to our security, well-being, and survival continue to exist. We need to remember what has happened in the past so we can be proactive now and in the future. What are we blot out? I choose not to name the perpetrators of violence, hatred, bullying, and terrorism. I want to honor the memories of those who lost their lives or are injured and suffering.

There are times to protect ourselves with disguises, barriers, care, and compassion. And there are times to take action, as Mordechai and Esther did in the Purim story. They didn’t do it alone, and neither will we. They took their actions with the Jewish community’s support. We are stronger together.

As we support one another in our struggles and stand true to our Judaism and community, we also celebrate Purim, cheering on Esther and Mordechai and booing Haman, dressing in costumes, and laughing at ourselves and with each other. We enjoy a nosh together, eating Hamantachen and giving shalach manot, small gifts of goodies to others, and matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor, this year to Sant La.

I hope you will join me this Friday night at Temple Israel or online as we celebrate as a community. Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach!