Purim (from Rabbis for Human Rights)


 I posted earlier that sometimes it’s best not to moralize too much about the Bible. And sometimes it is, even on Purim. I’m re-posting here the follow thoughts from Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights. Arik is an old friend, a genius, a true tzadik. I receieved it by email as a RHR newsletter. Arik understands the big picture and the small detail. You can find more at: http://rhr.org.il/eng/

Purim Thoughts 5772
Rabbi Arik Ascherman
Rabbis For Human Rights

In recent weeks we have enjoyed some partial, but important, successes.  They, along with the breastplate of the High Priest, have helped me reflect during this Purim season on the meaning of memory, obligation, and the very essence of our task in this world.
1.  The KKL-JNF confirmed statements we have heard in recent weeks that they will not plant in areas in areas where there are legal disputes over land ownership.  They did so in the context of El-Arakib, where RHR, RHR-NA, The Jewish Alliance For Change, and other friends and partners have been calling on the JNF to return to it’s roots (This is a serious piece, but allow me a small Purim pun), and not sully itself by planting forests on the ruins of “unrecognized” Bedouin villages such as El-Arakib. The JNF would like us to believe that refraining has always been their policy, even as the right wing is up in arms. They say that the JNF has capitulated and reneged on its historic duty to protect the lands of the Jewish people through forestation. The fact is that this is only a partial success. It is not clear whether this is  or only relates to four specific plots in El-Arakib, and the Israel Lands Authority has made it clear that they still intend to plant, with or without the KKL-JNF.  Nevertheless, in the Purim spirit of reversals of fortune (Nahafokh hu), we know that just this summer KKL-JNF chair emphatically declared that the KKL-JNF would not honor Judge Netzer’s non-binding request not to plant in this area.

2. Amidar, the Israeli semi-governmental public housing company, cancelled the eviction of Ovadia and Miriam Ben-Avraham.  Miriam and Ovadia are an elderly couple with health problems who live in a cramped public housing apartment.  RHR was part of a campaign led by HaMa’abarah to prevent their eviction.  It was so wonderful to hear Ovadia say that he was again sleeping at night, and to celebrate with him on the very day he was to have been evicted.  In the words of The Book of Esther, the day was “Transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy.”  (Esther 9:22).  Again, this was a partial success.  Many more evictions are scheduled.  They will continue until we see results from RHR’s current efforts in the Knesset to reverse government policy to dismantle public housing. 

Earlier today I accompanied Itzik and Lili to meet with the Michael, the director of Amidar in Petach Tikvah.  Itzik and Lili are scheduled to be evicted next Wednesday.  However, Michael insisted on meeting with the couple alone, knowing that they would be hard pressed to know what to say and how to answer.  He turned them away, saying “I can’t do anything about it.”  It hit me later that today was Ta’anit Esther, the day that Jews traditional fast in solidarity with Esther and her three day fast before risking her life by going uninvited to plead with King Ahasuerus for the lives of he people.    My fast didn’t get me in to see King Michael, nor was he swayed as was Ahasuerus. 

As I reflect on these events and many others, I know how much more we have to do, but reject the tendency to cynically downplay small achievements. Our successes in changing policy over the years started with similar steps, and the look of relief on Ovadia’s face is worth everything, “One who saves a single life, it is as if one has saved an entire world.” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

These events also help clarify for me both how I understand the incredibly difficult and disturbing texts connected to Purim, and find in those texts the very essence of RHR’s mission.
The Shabbat before Purim is called “Shabbat Zakhor” because we read the commands in the Torah both to remember how Amalek despicably attacked us when we left Egypt and never to forget our obligation to blot out the very memory of Amalek.  (Deuteronomy 25: 17-19).  We also read of God’s command to King Saul to wipe out the descendents of Amalek, men, women and children (1 Samuel 15:3) and are taught in the Book of Esther that Haman is also a descendent of the Amalekites.  Here to, we defend ourselves by killing tens of thousands.

 On RHR’s website we have launched a discussion including prominent rabbis asking how we honor these texts and acknowledge the lessons that must be drawn from the history of Jewish oppression, without succumbing to Jewish exceptionalism, and an “Us against the world” mentality.  How do we avoid justifying human rights violations, or even a Baruch Goldstein shooting Muslim worshipers in the back on Purim day?  

However, this year Purim falls in the cycle of the last 5 weekly portions in Exodus dealing with the commands to build the Miskhan.  This portable Tabernacle is to house the tablets with the ten commandments.  It is where Moses will speak with God, and where Aaron and his sons will serve God,
On Shabbat Zakhor this year, along with the commandments to remember to wipe out Amalek, we were taught another aspect of memory.  The weekly portion was Parashat Tetzhaveh, in which Moses is commanded to make a breastplate as part of the vestments to be worn by Aaron in the  It will be set with 12 stones representing the 12 tribes, “The stones shall correspond to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. (Exodus 28:21).  Why?  “Aaron shall carry the names of he children of Israel on the breastplate over his heard, whne he enters the holy space, for remembrance before Adonai at all times. (28:29) 

The High Priest served God with all the tribes of Israel close to his heart.  Yes, there were power struggles between the tribes, and some were more more equal than others..  However, in those most sacred moments when the High Priest would go into the inner sanctum of the desert Mishkan or the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, each tribe had a place, and each was equally important.

Who is next to our heart in our most holy moments?  Who must be in our heart in order for us to create sacred space?  This is one of the most important questions we can ask.  Perhaps it is THE question.
In our world, not only the twelve tribes must be close to our hearts.  The breastplate next to our hearts must have room for all humanity.  Certainly, we in Israel must create a space for every Israeli citizen, and for those under our control.
The Bedouin of the unrecognized villages and those dependent on public housing are two of our forgotten tribes.  Sometimes our fellow Israelis are demonized and blamed for society’s ills, but often they are simply ignored.  Who knows or cares that 30-45,000 Bedouin could be evicted from their homes if the Praver recommendations are adapted by the Knesset?  How many people know or care that at least 40,000 people are on waiting lists for public housing and thousands in need are not even deemed eligible to be on the lists, while others dwell in homes in life threatening states of disrepair and hundreds are evicted every year? 

In our Holy of Holies, every person counts: From Jerusalem to El-Arakib; From Tel Aviv to the South Hebron Hills;  From Hadera to Silwan; From the Azrieli towers to the fields of Jalud.

When we remember our forgotten ones, we forget Amalek.  When all humanity is in our hearts, there will be no room for Amalek. 

This is not simply a mental exercise.  We must actively battle “Amelekiut,” the characteristics of attacking the weakest and most helpless members of our society and the use of eifah v’eifah (double standards) associated with Amalek. The Torah tells us that Amalek attacked the weakened stragglers (Deut. 25:18). Because the verses from which the sages derive the prohibition against acting eifah v’eifah appears immediately before the mention of Amalek, Rashi teaches that  when we act eifah v’eifah, Amalek attacks. I see “Amalekiut” in how we treated the El-Arakib’s and the Ovadiahs in our society.

This Purim, as we joyously blot out the name of Haman, may we focus on blotting out from our midst the persecution of the weak and eliminating discriminatory double standards.  May we  thus rededicate ourselves to the building of a national Tabernacle of justice, and remember to bring every human being into our “Mikdash Me’at”  the Holy of Holies in our hearts. 

Purim Sameakh,

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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