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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Right Parashah, wrong week...or is it wrong parashah right week?

I'd like to apologize for posting my commentary on this week's parashah for last Shabbat.  I guess I was celebrating Purim a little early by turning everything around!

Since I already did write on Parshat Tetzaveh, I thought I would share a few mindfulness musings on the fact that this Shabbat is also Shabbat Zakhor, the special Shabbat just before the holiday of Purim, which starts on Saturday at sundown.  On this Shabbat we read a special maftir (final portion read from the Torah) which commands us "Zakhor/Remember what Amalek did to us...."  Read on for more explanantion.

Shabbat Shalom,

Deuteronomy 25: 17 – 19
“ Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, as you came out from Egypt.  How, he fell upon you on the way and cut off all the weak ones at your rear, when you were exhausted and tired, and he didn’t fear God.  So it shall be, when YHWH, your God, will give you rest from all your enemies all around in the land that YHWH, your God, is giving you as a legacy to take possession of it, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the skies.  You shall not forget.”


Amalek.  The eternal enemy of the Jewish people.  Amalek, ancestor of Haman, the villain of this week’s holiday of Purim.  Amalek, the one who didn’t fear God and so broke all the rules by cutting off and destroying the weak and the old, the feeble and the weary, the stragglers.

Oddly enough, in the first telling of the story of Amalek's attack, which is found in the book of Shemot/Exodus no mention is made of Amalek “cutting off the stragglers.”  Amalek simply attacks Israel, plain and simple. 

It is amazing how memory and perception changes our realities as time passes.

According to the rabbis, one of the lessons of Amalek is to remember that the stragglers were only vulnerable because those in front – the strong and the brave – allowed them to be.  If they had slowed down or joined with the weak and the feeble, they would not have been vulnerable to Amalek’s attack.  As a community, this reminds us of our responsibility to one another.  We must watch out for and protect each other as we travel on our journeys.

However, there is another message embedded in this text that I would like to share with you as a kavvanah (intention) for this Maftir portion.

We read this special Maftir in preparation for Purim.  It reminds us of the fact that Amalek continued to live in the person of Haman, just as our tradition has taught that Amalek continues to live on in every person or nation that has tried to destroy the Jewish people.

However, Amalek also lives within us.  Amalek is the piece within us that tries to separate us from the community, the world and God.  Amalek is the seductive piece that latches on to what we view as our weaknesses.  Amalek knows where we are vulnerable.  It catches us unaware, preys on our vulnerabilities and ensnares us.

In rabbinic language Amalek can be seen as the yetzer ha’ra – the inclination to evil – that dwells within each of us.  In mindfulness language, Amalek is our ego.  It is the part within us that tells us that we must seek pleasure and avoid pain, seek praise and avoid criticism, and so on.  Then it sits back and watches as we eventually begin to suffer, since pleasure will eventually disappear and praise is fleeting.  It waits until suddenly we are left alone and bereft of pleasure.  There is nowhere and no one to turn to.  Then Amalek – the ego – comes in for the kill.  It tries to cut us off from our true source of life, from God, from connection, from the world.

The dual commandment in the Maftir passage is to wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the skies, and to never forget!  This commandment, like life, is a paradox.  George Santayana said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.  Yet, as Rabbi Alan Lew,  z"l (may his memory be a blessing) taught in response, those who become too attached to the memory of history are unable to let go.  Both remembering and forgetting can cause suffering in excess.  Therefore, perhaps the message of this passage is that we must wipe the memory of what Amalek – what our ego – has done to us in the past.  For that is the past and we can only really live in the present.   

However, we must never forget that Amalek is still with us.  In this way, if we live mindfully, we will recognize when Amalek is showing its face.  We will recognize when our ego is playing its tricks on us, trying to seduce us and waiting to pounce on us and separate us from God and the world.  When we recognize this, how do we respond?  We respond by doing exactly what we are commanded to do on Purim – the day when communally we remember the downfall of Amalek's evil descendant Haman.  We laugh in Amalek’s face.  We celebrate the joy and absurdity of life.  We recognize that the present moment is a gift from God that is meant to be celebrated.  We smile and look Amalek in the eye, offer him a sip of schnapps, rejoice and wait for him to leave!  That is the surest way to remember – to acknowledge – his presence without allowing him to have power over the moment or over who we are.  This way you can remain connected to God, and to the moment in joy.

May we all remember to have a restful Shabbat and a joyous Purim!

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