Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Walk Article-Zachor




Rabbi David Walk



My students at Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, CT are often upset with me because of my slightly warped sense of humor. I often see things from a different perspective than these young people who are two generations separated from me. These dissimilar takes on life produce (at least for me) many humorous opportunities. Often these jokes take the form of puns. This punny point of view is even more fun (for me) when the word play crosses over into multiple languages. This approach to language and, perhaps, humor has a long and venerated history among our Sages. Hundreds of rabbinic homilies are based on puns. Probably the most famous of these is recited every Shabbat morning, and by Sefardim every day. This idea from the end of tractate Berachot (64a) begins with the proposition that the disciples of the rabbis increase peace in the world. The proof to that assertion is a verse: And all your children shall be learned in the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children (Isaiah 54:13). But then comes the weird word play. The rabbis tell us not to read the word for 'your children' as banayich, but as bonayich, which means your builders. Those who study Torah are building a world of peace for God. It's a beautiful idea, but the proof text is a stretch, to say the least. Well, the Sages did it again with an idea which is important to this week's special reading, Zachor, remember the behavior of Amalek.


Before we get to the pun, we need a little background. We read the annual reminder to remember Amalek the Shabbat before Purim, because we identify Haman, the Purim villain, with the nation of Amalek. There are two reasons for this assertion. The more conventional approach is that Haman is referred to as Agagi in the Megila. This is the name of the King of Amalek who was spared by King Shaul back in the book of Samuel. So, many authorities see this as a proof that Haman was related to that ruler of our nemesis. The other way of thinking is, for me, more compelling. The Talmud assumes that all the gene pools of the world were mixed up by Sennacherib the head of the Assyrian Empire, when he forcibly exiled all conquered people to other lands, including the famous Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. This means that we can no longer identify any ancient ethnicity. Therefore it would seem that we can't continue the search and destroy mission against Amalek. Maimonides to the rescue! He explains that Amalek is identified by behavior patterns, not DNA. Now as promised we're ready for the word play homily.


Towards the end of tractate Chulin (139b) the rabbis ask for a source for the character Haman in the Torah (Five Books of Moses). This question seems to suggest that the Torah predicts all future events and contains information about them. Maybe. In any case, here's the allusion to Haman: hamin ha'etz (Genesis 3:11). These words are the admonition of Adam for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. The weird allusion to Haman is in the word hamin, which in the voweless Torah scroll is spelled with the same three letters as the name Haman. The Maharshah (Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Eidels, 1555-1631) in his classic commentary on Talmudic Aggadata explains that this isn't about linguistic games. It is teaching us that Haman and, indeed, all of Amalek are the snake in the grass, or the snake in the Garden. I agree that the Sages weren't just playing word games, but trying to teach us about the nature of Amalek. However, I would like to suggest that Haman isn't the snake but is the tree.


There are so many interpretations of this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad that I can't begin to survey them. Allow me to jump into the explanation that I believe is significant to understanding Haman and Amalek. There was always good and bad, and humanity always had the ability to choose freely whichever seemed appropriate at the time. If this weren't true Adam and Eve, couldn't have sinned. Here's what changed with the consumption of the fruit: Previously good and bad were discrete units outside the human being, now good and bad were not only mixed with each other, they became internal attributes within the people themselves. Once this characteristic of badness is internal within humans, I can make the mistake of assuming that that there are humans who are irredeemably bad. Now that Amalek is a personality trait and not an ethnicity, I can identify that trait. They are those who judge people because of their race or ethnicity, not because of what they're deeds or actions. That's how Haman identified the Jews in the Megilla: There is a certain people...their laws differ from those of every people, and they do not keep the king's laws;...therefore let it be written to destroy them (Esther 4:8-9).


I learned this concept from Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, who passed away a few weeks ago. Rabbi Joe was a passionately proud Jew. He lived to spread Torah and its message. But to him a major part of that message superseded just following the laws (which he did punctiliously), it extended to demonstrating the dignity of humankind. To him the most important verse in the Torah is 'This is the book of the activities of humanity (Genesis 5:1).' This is why he could meet with Christians and Moslems, and advise both Anwar Sadat and Pope John Paul II. More important than their religion was their humanity. This is also why he could criticize superficially observant Jews. He would visit an old friend from Yeshiva who was serving time in prison for defrauding people of their retirement funds. He would cry compassionate tears for his friend's inability to understand God's moral demands, while scrupulously following God's rituals.


Rabbi Joe was the anti-Amalek. He loved God's creatures because God created them. He never categorized others, but tried to understand what made them tick. His love of humanity will be sorely lacking down here, but I think that he'll make heaven a better place. I will miss him as a friend and mentor, but will always cherish him as an inspiration. May his memory be for a blessing, for all mankind.  Happy Purim!

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