Remembering Amalek…and Remembering to Return

D’var Torah at Judea Reform, March 18, 2016…

The Shabbat just before Purim is called shabbat zachor, the Sabbath of “Remember.” It gets its name from the opening words of a special Torah passage (Deut 25:17-19) which tells us to “remember what Amalek did to us on our journey.” As Purim approaches, we note the connection between Amalek and Haman, and many a sermon on Shabbat Zachor has called attention to the need for Jews to be ever-vigilant in the world, on guard against the oldest hatred of all.

I could give that sermon. Indeed, with our youth leading the prayers, one could make the case that I should give that sermon. What better way to equip these young people for what awaits them in the world than to remind them that even now, antisemitism refuses to die? Today’s high school students don’t face the same challenges their great-grandparents may have faced in America, in the days when bigotry against the Jews was sanctioned by society. We are not the object of quotas in universities and professional schools, we are protected from red-lining when we look for homes, we cannot legally be denied employment, and in most of society our uglier detractors know better than to voice their hatred out loud.

But we still have detractors, and in the current political environment they are emboldened. That one major party candidate for office is a Jew, and another one attracts some supporters from the world of hard-core antisemitism makes this a time for awareness. And I haven’t even mentioned the European scene, where the historical record is much darker and the current climate even more challenging. Zachor et asher asa l’cha Amalek, I might well say to these teens. Remember. Don’t forget.

I could give that sermon, and maybe I should…but I won’t. No, the message I wish to share with our teens, their families, our members and friends, our guests from Orange United Methodist Church’s Confirmation Class, is one that is both more optimistic, and more universal. I draw it from the other scriptural reading for this Shabbat, from the opening chapters of Leviticus. There, we learn about the journey of the human soul from guilt and shame to cleansing and healing:

If a person incurs guilt —

When he has heard a public imprecation and — although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter — he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment;

Or when a person touches any unclean thing — be it the carcass of an unclean beast or the carcass of unclean cattle or the carcass of an unclean creeping thing — and the fact has escaped him, and then, being unclean, he realizes his guilt;

Or when he touches human uncleanness — any such uncleanness whereby one becomes unclean — and, though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later he realizes his guilt;

Or when a person utters an oath to bad or good purpose — whatever a man may utter in an oath — and, though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later he realizes his guilt in any of these matters —

when he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, he shall confess that wherein he has sinned (Lev 5:1-5)

This text, like so much of the book of Leviticus, seems at first glance impenetrable: a 189-word sentence with nested dependent clauses and highly technical terminology from a time utterly different than our own. And yet, if we cut through those barriers, what we find is a pretty simple message: we are all prone to forgetfulness and error, and we are all capable of remembering and apologizing. It’s another take on shabbat zachor, the sabbath of “Remember.” We have all experienced that moment of remembering when we missed the mark. We wronged someone or failed to live up to our own expectations for ourselves. Out of shame or stubborness, we forgot. And then, something triggered a memory of that moment. How we respond right then is what matters. Do we shove it back into the recesses of our minds, or do we “confess that wherein we have sinned?”

Confess? Sin? “But I thought this was going to be a more optimistic sermon!” It is. The universality of human error makes it so. We all make mistakes, and so the fact that I make a mistake is not a reason for excessive shame or self-flagellation. Nefesh ki techeta, the passage begins. Simply because we are human, we will err. As for confession…as the note in your commentary points out, the Hebrew word l’hitvadot has the sense of “admit to oneself.” Confession begins in an acknowledgment of our nature, and proceeds to righting the wrong.

If you’re thinking that this sounds like a Yom Kippur sermon, you’re not wrong. It could easily be one. That I’m offering it in March is sort of the point. The commandment to turn, confess, reconcile, make right what is wrong, is not a once-a-year practice, despite the very common joke we like to make when we do something wrong in August or September: “Good thing Yom Kippur’s almost here.” No, the practice of remembering, self-reckoning, returning, and restoring is for every day, for every moment.

And that’s the message I want our teens to take into their hearts, and the rest of us too. Our faith offers us manual for living mindfully and in right relationship with others and with the Universe. Remember. Recognize. Return. Restore. And, because you are perfectly imperfect…Repeat.

Amalek is still present in the world. Hatred, division, fear of the Other. The traditional answer of Shabbat Zachor, to remember and to be vigilant, is important. But no less important is to nurture the soul’s capacity to return…because when we nurture it in ourselves, we model it for others, bringing closer the day when Amalek will finally be vanquished in the most effective way possible: through the uprooting of evil from every human heart. May it come soon.

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