Dvar Torah for Shabbat Vayikra/ Shabbat Zachor 5776/2016
(Leviticus 1:1 - 5:23; Deuteronomy 27: 17-19)
I delivered this Dvar Torah at Temple Israel on Friday evening 3/18/16, a couple of days before the start of the annual policy meeting of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C.
מַה-גָּדְלוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהוָה; מְאֹד, עָמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ.
"How great are your works, Adonai! How profound your designs!" (Psalms 92:9)
Those words from Psalm 92, the Psalm for the Sabbath Day, strike a powerful chord within us.
We surely know that when we’re dealing with questions of faith and spirituality, our words are inadequate to the task. The mere fact of existence boggles the mind. The grandeur of the universe, the interconnectedness of all life --- “Mah Gadlu”/ How great is all this! “Mah Nora”/ “How awesome!
You really can’t put that all into a little box.
You really can’t put that all into a little ritual.
But, our ancestors tried to do this nevertheless. They were only human. And we do so as well. For we too are only human.
I think that’s the sort of mind-space we need to be in as we enter the Book of Leviticus, opening chapters of which comprise this week’s Torah portion.
א וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר. ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, אָדָם כִּי-יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן, לַיהוָה--מִן-הַבְּהֵמָה, מִן-הַבָּקָר וּמִן-הַצֹּאן, תַּקְרִיבוּ, אֶת-קָרְבַּנְכֶם.
1 The Eternal called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: 2 Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When an individual from among you presents an animal offering to the Eternal, their offering shall be from the herd or from the flock..
The remainder of the first chapter of Leviticus talks in particular about the details of a particular category of offering called in Hebrew “olah” and includes a number of ritual specifications. But the defining detail is found in verse 13 of the chapter:
וְהִקְרִיב הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַכֹּל, וְהִקְטִיר הַמִּזְבֵּחָה--עֹלָה הוּא אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ, לַיהוָה.
The priest shall offer up the entirety of the animal , turning it into smokeon the altar. It is a “burnt offering” (Hebrew: “olah”), an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Eternal.
The early Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint translated “olah” as “Holocasten”.
The website “The Free Dictionary” notes further:
Totality of destruction has been central to the meaning of holocaust since it first appeared in Middle English in the 1300s, used in reference to the biblical sacrifice in which a male animal was wholly burnt on the altar in worship of God. Holocaust comes from Greek holokauston, "that which is completely burnt," which was a translation of Hebrew 'ōlâ (literally "that which goes up," that is, in smoke). In this sense of "burnt sacrifice," holocaust is still used in some versions of the Bible.
Actually, nowadays you’d have to search quite a bit to find any contemporary English Bibles or Torah commentaries to find “olah” translated as “holocaust.” The word “Holocaust” is so explicitly associated in our minds with the Nazi’s genocide against our people during World War that it would be jarring to continue to use it as a translation for olah in the Book of Leviticus, even if it was good enough for the Septuagint and some early English versions circa 1600 or earlier. The Jewish Publication Society translation used in our Plaut Torah commentary translates “Olah” as “Burnt Offering”.
Indeed, many contemporary Jews prefer not to use the term “Holocaust” to refer to the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe because of that early connection of the term with the olah offering described in Leviticus 1. The preferred term is “Sho’ah” a Hebrew term meaning “catastrophe.” For the genocide of one third of the world’s Jews less than a century ago was no pious offering to express our awe of God and our desire to be closer to God. Rather, it was a catastrophe for which our response must be: “Never Again!”
This Shabbat of Parashat Vayikra (the Sabbath of the opening portion of Sefer Vaykra/ The Book of Leviticus) is also a special Shabbat on the Jewish calendar known as Shabbat Zachor.
Shabbat Zachor gets its name from the first word of the additional reading that we do on a second Torah scroll tomorrow morning. From Deuteronomy chapter 25, the reading begins “Zachor et asher asah lekha Amalek!” (“Remember what Amalek did to you!”). We include this reading each year on the Sabbath immediately preceding Purim because tradition says that Amalek was an ancestor of Haman – both genealogically as well as in his evil nature.
The Maftir passage from Deuteronomy 25 concludes with the admonition “Timcheh et zecher Amalek mitachat hashamayim – lo tishkach” (“You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from heaven – do not forget!”.)
It can seem paradoxical to say --- on the one hand – Remember what Amalek did to you; but on the other hand – blot out the memory of Amalek….
But I think the true sense of the passage is that we are charged with blotting out all manifestations of Amalek-like behavior in our world.
Genocide is certainly the epitome of Amalek-like behavior. And, indeed, Hitler, yimach shemo(“may his name be wiped out”), has often been compared to Amalek. But the terrible truth is that there have indeed been new Amalek’s in the decades since the Shoah -- most prominently in Cambodia in the 1970’s and in Rwanda in the 1990’s.
This week, the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL or Da’esh, was officially designated by the United States government as a perpetrator of genocide.
As the New York Times reported yesterday:
Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Thursday that the Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims who have fallen under its control in Syria and Iraq. The militants, who have also targeted Kurds and other Sunni Muslims, have tried to slaughter whole communities, enslaved captive women and girls for sex, and sought to erase thousands of years of cultural heritage by destroying churches, monasteries and ancient monuments, Mr. Kerry said. The Islamic State’s “entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology,” he said.
This action by our government is an important step, even if it’s largely symbolic. A clear line connects the deeds of Amalek to the deeds of ISIS.
But there is also another important teaching we get from the Shabbat Zachor maftir. Specifically, we get this teaching from the Torah’s description of the condition of our people when Amalek attacked us:
אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ--וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ
“how, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” (Deut. 25:18)
Two key translation points here: First, the Hebrew word “karkha” is translated above as “he surprised you” but the word “kar” also means ”cool” or“cold” in Hebrew. And Rashi notes that one of the possible interpretations of “asher karcha” is that the Amalekites “cooled” us.
For Rashi, what this meant is that the attack by Amalek made our people seem more vulnerable to additional, future attacks by other potential enemies.
However, to my mind (and I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest this interpretation), Rashi’s linguistic analysis instead leads me to the interpretation that Amalek made us “cold,” “insensitive”, “unfeeling” towards the “necheshalim” (translated above as “stragglers”) among us.
(Many commentators and scholars see the Hebrew word “necheshalim” as synonymous with its anagram “nechelashim” -- meaning enfeebled or stumbling.)
In other words, if we hadn’t been “cold” towards the “enfeebled” among us, Amalek would not have been able to cut them down.
And this brings me to Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump is scheduled to speak Monday evening in Washington, D.C. at the annual convention of AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
AIPAC considers itself to be a non-partisan organization whose mission is [and I quote here from their website]
“to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.”
To that end, they routinely invite all of the major party’s presidential candidates to speak. Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Donald Trump are all scheduled to speak next week. Bernie Sanders was invited but declined the invitation. (AIPAC didn't give him the opportunity to speak by videocast so he ended up giving the speech he would have given to AIPAC in Salt Lake City where he was campaigning in advance of the March 22 Utah primary)
In recent days, both the Reconstructionist movement and the Reform movement have gone on record with their concerns about Mr. Trump.
The Reform movement, in a joint press release with the Central Conference of American Rabbis states:
As a religious movement, we do not endorse or oppose any candidates – and we do not do so now. We have often listened to and, more importantly, engaged with candidates and officeholders whose views sharply differ from our own; such interactions are the essence of our political system. But Mr. Trump is not simply another candidate. In his words and actions, he makes clear that he is engaging in a new form of political discourse, and so the response to his candidacy demands a new approach, as well. The Reform Movement and our leaders will engage with Mr. Trump at the AIPAC Policy Conference in a way that affirms our nation's democracy and our most cherished Jewish values. We will find an appropriate and powerful way to make our voices heard.
And the Reconstructionist movement statement says:
The leadership of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement urges the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to rescind its invitation to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak at its annual gathering next week. At a minimum, we call on AIPAC to clearly affirm that Muslims are welcome in the United States and to condemn all racist statements. The AIPAC gathering, which is the largest annual gathering of American Jews, should not be a platform for espousing hateful rhetoric and racist policies.
We understand that AIPAC invited all presidential candidates and that an invitation is not an endorsement. However, when the values a candidate espouses are inimical to both the lessons of Jewish history and our Jewish ethical values, we must avoid any misunderstanding. This invitation confers an unwarranted legitimacy on Donald Trump’s positions, which include the outright banning of all Muslims from entering the United States.
I know a number of rabbinic colleagues who will be attending the AIPAC meeting next week.
Apparently, some are planning to walk out when Trump begins speaking, others intend to hear what he has to say, others plan to protest outside the venue.
My sister even texted me from Florida today asking me --- what do you think about all this and I texted her back saying funny you should mention that because I’m in the middle of writing a dvar torah on that very topic!
So, here’s my two shekels:
Trump is not Hitler.
The brutal murderers who call themselves the Islamic State, as Secretary of State Kerry affirmed this week, are the ones who are the perpetrators of genocide.
As such, I’d say that ISIS is a much more direct analog to Hitler.
But, Donald Trump still has something in common with Amalek – whom on this Shabbat we are commanded to remember and whose memory on this Shabbat we are commanded to blot out.
ISIS is a group of murderous terrorists. But Trump’s lumping together of them with the hundreds of millions of peace-loving Muslims of the world is racist, dangerous to our society, and inimical to Jewish values. Indeed, the refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and the surrounding region are for the most part analogous to “hanecheshalim” -- the enfeebled stragglers who were the direct victims of Amalek. And Trump, like Amalek, seeks to make us “kar”/ “cold” – “unfeeling” and “unsympathetic” to them.
Let Trump speak. But let AIPAC and all of us make our arguments in response.
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5776/2016
Originally posted on March 23rd, 2016