Parshat Tzav: Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36
In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, in the Book of Leviticus, we continue learning about the sacrificial cult as practiced by the Priests of Israel in ancient times. But on this Shabbat we have an additional Torah reading as a way of announcing the nearness of the joyful festival of Purim. It is Shabbat Zachor, the time when we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites in the desert when he attacked from the rear and to blot out his name. The reading from the prophets speaks of great violence brought by the Israelites against the Amalekite people… and the connection will be that Haman, the wicked, was a direct descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites, whom the Israelites failed to destroy!
That’s how this reading fits in the days before Purim where, at the end of the story, “… Mordechai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Achashverosh, both near and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, the days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.” (Book of Esther, 9:20-22)
We learn in this paragraph not only the obligation to celebrate but also two important mitzvot connected with our celebration of Purim, mishloach manot –gifts of food, and matanot laevyonim –gifts for the poor.
On the one hand it seems that the readings for Shabbat Zachor and even the Purim story itself are full of violence reminding us that the world is often neither safe nor joyful. Remembrance (the meaning of Zachor) leads us to be on guard against potential Amaleks in the world. We should be ready to defend ourselves. But this should not be the only meaning of these passages.
Purim is to be a day of celebration and of sending gifts to friends and aid to the poor. These practices are critical parts of the message. Though we know that the world can be a cruel and unpredictable place, our response cannot only be in kind, but also in kindness, creating compassionate communities. Compassionate communities, where the poor and the weak are protected, where everyone feels welcome and accepted will not by themselves stop an Amalek or eradicate evil; but a fortress mentality of self-defense, by itself, will never heal us or the world from the scars that Amalek leaves. Perhaps Mordechai understood that after the people rose up against their enemies, the only way forward was to love each other more, and thus create the possibility that Amalek would be defeated in the realm of values, and not only in battle.
Shabbat Zachor calls us to remember what Amalek did to us, but Purim calls us to act in a way that defeats Amalek more completely: by acting out of our deepest vision of a caring community, sustaining and gladdening each other we can show the world a different way of being, and this too is a triumph.
So, come and celebrate Purim, stomp your feet and blot out Haman’s name as we interpret the Meguilah, but remember that it is not about vengeance or violence, but about replacing them with kindness and generosity.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim!
Rabbi Roberto D. Graetz