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Sins and Sinners

(Shabbat Zakhor 5777 / 11 March 5777)

March 11, 2017

Purim: a holiday of masks and costumes whose motto, taken from the end of the Megillah, is וְנַֽהֲפוֹךְ הוּא, “everything turned upside down.”[1] Nothing is what it seems. The synagogue sanctuary turns into a forum for revelry and silliness; people we respect and ideas we hold sacred become subjects of parody. Its central scripture, Megillat Esther, makes no mention of God — or any religious topic — and our Sages debated whether it belonged in the Bible at all.[2] 

We can easily see what the Rabbis found problematic in Megillat Esther: the story is a sexually-charged slapstick comedy about genocide. The double entendres, miscommunications, and reversals of fortune — all of them legitimately quite funny — swirl around a plot in which the king’s prime minister has laid detailed plans to slaughter all of the Jews in the Persian Empire — men, women, and children. Hardly a laughing matter, even if we know that it all works out for our heroes in the end.

Again, nothing is what it seems. On Purim we read a story in which the villain’s evil nature surfaces in his intent to commit mass murder. On the Shabbat that immediately precedes the holiday, the Rabbis assigned a special maftir Torah reading and haftarah — in which God commands us, the Jewish people, to eradicate the nation of Amalek. Perhaps at some point in history we would have ascribed the evil of Haman’s plans to his choice of victim —  us — rather than the act of genocide itself; in that way we could tolerate or even endorse our mission to destroy Amalek while condemning Haman’s similar desire toward us in the Megillah. I’m not convinced by this theory, but even if we might once have shrugged at this morning’s maftir, we are surely compelled now, in the wake of the past century of Jewish and World history, to recognize the inherent evil of genocide — not only when directed at us, but against any nation, even our enemies.

The problem of parashat Zakhor, in light of the Esther story, crystallized for me a few weeks ago. In the commentary of Rabbi Moshe Halayow, a 13th-century Spanish rabbi, I found a striking question that seems obvious in retrospect but never occurred to me: what made Haman want to murder all the Jews when he was really only angry with Mordecai?[3] 

Rabbi Moshe’s first attempt to answer brings us to this morning’s haftarah, in which King Saul — son of Kish,[4] whom the Megillah identifies as Mordecai’s great-grandfather[5] — wipes out the Amalekites but fails to kill their king, Agag[6] — identified in Megillat Esther as Haman’s ancestor.[7] While this can explain why Haman would go beyond Mordecai himself to destroy Saul’s lineage or even the whole tribe of Benjamin, it still fails to account for Haman’s intent to slaughter all of the Jews.

Instead, he looks to parashat Zakhor, the special maftir reading before Purim each year, which concludes with the mitzvah, תִּמְחֶה אֶת־זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, “blot out the memory of Amalek.”[8] God’s commandment to eliminate the nation of Amalek — so vividly illustrated in the haftarah — leads Haman, descendant of Amalek, to adopt the same approach in return. In a delicious irony that I assume must be intentional, Rabbi Moshe imagines Haman acting according to the principle of מדה כנגד מדה, “measure for measure,” that we ordinarily associate with Divine justice.

This brings us to the heart of the problem in the Megillah: although the Jews escape Haman’s evil plot, their victory leaves behind an immense death toll. Given that Judaism views self-defense as a legitimate justification for lethal force, we could look at the Jews’ killing of so many Persians as an unfortunate necessity — Haman’s followers wanted to murder the Jews and, as the Talmud says, “When someone tries to kill you, get up and kill him first.”[9] And yet when we consider Rabbi Moshe’s understanding, that Haman turned to genocide in response to the Torah’s mitzvah to wipe out his nation, Amalek — couldn’t we apply the same logic of self-defense to his plot against the Jews? We find ourselves mired in a cycle where each nation’s genocidal hatred justifies the same reaction in the other.

Turn, for a moment, to the concluding verse of parashat Zakhor, Deuteronomy 25:19. Read the verse carefully: תִּמְחֶה אֶת־זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם, “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” Notice the use of language here: תִּמְחֶה, “blot out” or “erase.” The Torah has plenty of verbs to describe physical violence and homicide, and yet here it chooses a more ambiguous term.[10] The later insistence that תִּמְחֶה indicates an obligation to kill all Amalekites comes not from the Torah portion alone but from reading it in parallel with the haftarah: the Torah gives us the general idea, and the haftarah shows the specific application.[11] Clear, strong logic — but, as we have already seen, it leads to highly problematic ramifications down the road. Can we find a better approach?

A story:[12] 

Rabbi Meir, the great Talmudic Sage, had become fed up with some hoodlums that hung around his neighborhood, and he prayed for them to die. His wife, Beruriah — as legendary for her quick tongue as for her sharp wit — caught him at this and challenged him: “What do you think justifies your praying for their death? Is it the verse in Psalms, יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים מִן־הָאָרֶץ, ‘Let sins be wiped off the earth?’[13] If the verse said חוֹטּאִים, ‘sinners,’ perhaps you would have justification — but it says חַטָּאִים, ‘sins!’

“Moreover, you should have read further along in the verse, וּרְשָׁעִים עוֹד אֵינָם, ‘and let sinners be no more.’ Just because ‘sins are wiped off the earth,’ will ‘sinners be no more?’ Instead, you should pray for them to repent of their misdeeds — and once they repent, truly they will be ‘sinners no more.’”

Rabbi Meir took this to heart and prayed for them to repent, which they did.

Rabbi Meir has had it with the hooligans in his neighborhood, and he wants them gone. Beruriah challenges his response on moral grounds — but let’s not think she is any more tolerant of their misdeeds than Rabbi Meir. On the contrary, Beruriah takes a completely uncompromising stance: she doesn’t accept their behavior, she won’t normalize or excuse it. Sin is sin, and she does not hesitate to condemn evil where she sees it. The change comes not in her response to the sinners but in her attitude toward herself. Unlike Rabbi Meir, Beruriah insists that the path to social harmony must itself reflect that harmony; as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., taught, “We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.”[14] Rabbi Meir’s prayer might have settled the specific problem he faced in the moment, but it would not solve the systemic problem of sin and injustice.

Notice what Rabbi Meir misses but Beruriah understands: there are better, more effective ways to do away with “sinners” than literally getting rid of the people. Teshuvah, repentance, changes people; it offers a mechanism to eliminate “sinners” as a category without eliminating those people who previously engaged in sin. This works in the story, of course, but does Beruriah offer us a realistic model? Can our prayer truly change other people?

I believe it can, however indirectly. Our tradition emphasizes the importance of self-reflection in moral behavior. We are held to the standards by which we measure others;[15] we are cautioned against judging our neighbors for faults we ourselves possess.[16] It would be hard to make a credible prayer for someone else’s teshuvah without seriously engaging our own חשבון הנפש, reflecting on the places where we need to do teshuvah. Our capacity to effect change in others emerges from within our approach to the world; as Rev. King taught, the ends will be defined by the means we employ to achieve them. We know our prayers have been answered when they bring about change in us.

How would Beruriah read parashat Zakhor, with its command to “blot out the memory of Amalek?” I imagine she would incline toward those commentaries that emphasize זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, the memory of Amalek — rather than the people themselves. As we have discussed previously, the Amalekite worldview represents the antithesis of Torah: cruelty, glorification of power, recourse to violence, contempt for and exploitation of the weak.[17] זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, the memory that glorifies and promotes these attitudes, undermines God’s vision for a moral society because it encourages others to make recourse to violence and exploitation.[18] The Jewish people, in order to counteract this insidious force, are commanded to remove זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, the glorification of power for its own sake, from the world. Beruriah shows us the way: our prayer for a better world, a world defined by peace, dignity, and justice, must engage us in the question of our own commitment to these ideals — within the family, in our professional lives, with every interaction we have throughout the day. Does my behavior reflect Israel or Amalek? Whose words come out of my mouth? Have I acted in ways that inspire kindness and empathy in others? יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים מִן־הָאָרֶץ וּרְשָׁעִים עוֹד אֵינָם, “let sins be wiped off the earth, and sinners be no more.”

[1]        Esther 9:2.

[2]        Megillah 7a.

[3]        Rabbi Moshe Halayow, Esther 3:9, in Torat Hayyim: Esther (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 5766 / 2006).

[4]        1 Sam. 9:1.

[5]        Esther 2:5.

[6]        1 Sam. 15:2-34.

[7]        Esther 3:1.

[8]        Deut. 25:19.

[9]        Sanhedrin 72a.

[10]        תמחה זכר appears only in connection with Amalek (Ex. 17:14; Deut. 25:19). The similar construction תמחה שם clearly refers to the loss of a legacy rather than physical death (Deut. 9:14, 25:6, 29:19; 2 Kings 14:27; Psalm 109:13; cf. Judges 21:17). Evidence to the contrary lies in parashat Noah (Gen. 6:7, 7:4, 7:23), but the context there deals with destruction of the person rather than זכר or שם, which could allow for drawing a distinction.

[11]        Ibn Ezra, Deut. 25:19; cf. Rashi, ad. loc.

[12]        Adapted from Berakhot 10a.

[13]        Psalm 104:35.

[14]        Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” 24 December 1967.

[15]        Mishnah, Sotah 1.7; Sanhedrin 100a.

[16]        Bava Metzia 59b.

[17]        See, e.g., Rav Hirsch, Deut. 25:17-18.

[18]        Rav Hirsch, Ex. 17:14.

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