Tzav 5779-2019: Remembering Amalek: A Contemporary View
- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
- Mar 18, 2019
(Revised and updated from Tzav 5760-2000)
Rather than focus on this coming week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, I have decided to expound on the joyous, but complex, holiday of Purim that Jews all over the world (except those residing in ancient walled cities like Jerusalem) will be celebrating this Wednesday night. (Click here to read Tzav messages from previous years.)
The story of Purim, of course, concerns wicked Haman, who schemed to annihilate the Jews of Persia–men, women and children, on one day, the 13th of Adar, in the year 519 BCE (355 BCE, according to the traditional calculation). Fortunately, through the intervention of G-d, Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai (common misconception: uncle), the Jewish people were saved from this would-be mass genocide.
Jewish tradition looks upon those who seek to destroy the Jewish people as the spiritual heirs of Amalek, the fierce nation, who were the first to attack the People of Israel after the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 17:8), striking especially the stragglers and the weak. In our own times, it was the Nazis who are considered the contemporary Amalekites, and our pledge “Never Again,” parallels the words of the Torah (Deut. 25:17-19) which exhort us to never again forget what Amalek did to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, it is critical to provide a sense of balance to the Amalek-Nazi equation that we often draw, pointing out some important distinctions, and warning of some palpable dangers.
There is almost nothing more sacred or more sensitive for Jews living in the generation after the Holocaust, than the memory of the 6 million martyrs of the Nazi genocide. The poignant question, “Where was God?,” rather than being a theological provocation, is more likely a reflection of the abiding pain which still lingers from the staggering losses. After all, what could possibly be more important than sanctifying the memory of those who died–except ensuring a future for those who wish to live as Jews?
There is great justification for the continuing Jewish obsession with the Holocaust. It was numerically the greatest loss of Jews ever in Jewish history, and the wound is still raw. Survivors, who actually witnessed the horrors, while fewer in number today, can still be spoken to personally. And, now that “revisionists,” who seek to deny the Holocaust, have become even more brazen, sensitive Jews are reacting with even greater passion and resolve.
But, preoccupation with the Holocaust is exacting a great price.
Going back almost 30 years, the 1990 Council of Jewish Federations National Jewish Population Survey concluded that record numbers of Jews were walking away from Judaism. They reported, at that time, that two million American Jews no longer acknowledged being Jewish. One million American Jewish children were being raised as non-Jews, or with no religion at all. And, 625,000 Jews or their children had converted out of Judaism. A contemporary Gallup organization survey of religions in America reported that in the final decade of the 20th millennium, while there seemed to be a resurgence among Protestants and Catholics, Jews as a group were drifting away from their religion. Sadly, the commitment of America’s Jews to their religion, has eroded even further during the last 30 years.
There are many reasons for this wholesale abandonment of Jewish identity. Our grandparents prayed that America would be a “melting pot” for future generations; instead it has become a “meltdown”! Jewish education is woefully inadequate. For many decades, intensive Jewish education was derided by many Jewish leaders as being “separatist.” So now, massive numbers of young uneducated Jews walk away from Judaism, not because of dissatisfaction with the faith, but out of ignorance. And, the ignorance is overwhelming. The average American Jew knows who was the mother of Jesus, but doesn’t have a clue as to who was the mother of Moses; probably knows the meaning of the word “Trinity,” but is unlikely to know what the word “Mitzvah” means. Similarly, the typical American Jewish child could probably sing parts of or the entire Christmas song, “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” but is unfamiliar with even the first line of “Ma’oz Tzur”–the joyous Hanukkah hymn.
We have no one to fault but ourselves. We have failed to properly educate our children, and when we did provide Hebrew education, the experiences were so negative that it’s been said, only half in jest, that if the Jews for Jesus were smart they would pay to send every Jewish child to an afternoon Hebrew school because, in most instances, it’s proven to be the greatest turn-off to Jewish life.
The American Jewish community stands now at a most formidable crossroads, a crossroads that will likely determine whether Jewish life in America continues, or ceases to exist altogether. America’s Jews, like the Israelites of old, are being asked to choose between “life and death,” between “the blessing and the curse.”
Unless we “choose life,” unless there will be within the very near future, a dramatic turnaround in the patterns of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage, we are probably witnessing the last generation of Jewish life in America as we now know it. Our community will not be recognizable within 25 to 30 years.
If we are to stop the hemorrhaging of Jewish life in America, intensive, positive, joyous Jewish education and experiences must become a priority, rather than focus on Holocaust education and building Holocaust memorials.
To my mind it is criminal that the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Jewish history still has no mega fund ensuring a meaningful Jewish education for every child who desires one. There are presently thousands of children in North America who would be attending Jewish Day Schools, were the tuitions not so outrageously high.
We’ve reached the absurd point where the only feature of Judaism with which our young Jews identify is that of the Jew as victim–murdered, cremated or turned into a lampshade. As the prophet Jeremiah 8:22 asked, הַצֳּרִי אֵין בְּגִלְעָד? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no joy in Jewish life? No wonder our young Jews are turned off and walking away from their heritage.
It is hardly likely that we will be able to stop the proliferation of Holocaust centers in America, and the central role they now play. However, there is still time to make certain that these centers include a joyous and positive message for Jewish life. We must make certain that young Jews who enter these centers encounter a positive, upbeat message that will inspire them to live as Jews, and not be turned-off by the specter of endless victimization and suffering. If we fail to accomplish this, then these vaunted Holocaust centers will soon become the tombs of the present generation of American Jews.
There is a major destruction taking place in America right now. We can’t hear it, because there are, thank G-d, no barking dogs; we can’t see it because, thank G-d, there are no goose-stepping Nazi soldiers and no concentration camps; we can’t smell it because, thank G-d, there are no gas chambers. But the net result is exactly the same, the end of Jewish life.
I strongly agree with the late Chief Rabbi of the UK Lord Immanuel Jakobovits , that while remembering is important, rebuilding is far more important.
Rabbi David Hartman, said of Israel: In Tel Aviv, [secular Jews] walk with their puppies. In Jerusalem, [religious Jews] walk with their children. “American Jews,” he added, “build Holocaust memorials. Religious Jews have children. This way, religious Jews, have defeated Hitler. They have re-established every institution that existed in Eastern Europe before the war. That’s a powerful statement.”
I maintain, that 50 years from now, it is highly likely that only those Jews who fast on Tishah B’Av, who remember the destruction of the two Temples, who recall the Jewish victims of the Bar Kochbah rebellion that the Roman murderers refused to allow to be buried, who remember the hundreds of thousands of victims of the crusades, and read the Kinot poems bemoaning the destructions of kehillot Shum–Spire, Worms and Mayence, and are familiar with the brutal murders of Ukrainian Jewry at the hands of the “great” Ukrainian liberator, Bogdan Chmelnitsky in 1648-1649, will recall, or will care enough to remember, the victims of the European Holocaust.
And so, I say to you who read or hear these words, that if we fail to act now, if we fail to share with our young Jews the beauty and meaningfulness of Jewish life and Jewish heritage, there will be few Jews left in the next generation who will even know that there ever was a Holocaust of European Jews. The slogan “Never Again” will ring hollow, because the “silent Holocaust” will have done its job, and G-d forbid, Hitler will have emerged victorious.
May the joy of the special holiday of Purim permeate the hearts of all our people, especially the hearts of our young people, so that they will feel how good it is to be a Jew. Only then, will they have reason to remember Amalek.
May you be blessed.
Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night and Thursday, March 20-21, 2019.
The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE (356-355 BCE, according to the traditional calculation). For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.
Jewish tradition looks upon Haman and all those truly wicked enemies who sought to destroy the Jewish people as the heirs of the ancient Amalekites, the fierce nation that was the first to attack the people of Israel, especially the stragglers and the weak, after the exodus from Egypt. While remembering Amalek is important, rebuilding and guaranteeing a Jewish future is far more important.