Shabbat Zakhor: Fear of G*d

The learning of this week’s parashah all comes down to a confrontation between Shifra and Pu’ah, on one side, and Amalek, on the other. Shifra and Pu’ah were the Hebrew midwives whom Pharaoh commanded to carry out his plan to eradicate the Hebrews by killing all the boy babies as they were born. But the midwives did not follow the command:

וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת, אֶת-הָאֱלֹ-ם, וְלֹא עָשׂוּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶן מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם;  וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ, אֶת-הַיְלָדִים.

The midwives feared G*d, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them; they saved the male babies alive. (Ex.1.17)

The midwives “feared G*d.” In contrast, as we are reminded in the special reading associated with our parashah this week, the Amalekites, a tribe living in the Negev wilderness, did not.

זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ …

Remember what Amalek did to you…

אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ—וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים.

how he met you by the way, and attacked you from behind,

all the weak, straggling in the rear, and you were faint and weary; he had no fear of G*d.(Deut.25.1-18)

The great Torah teacher and commentator Nehama Leibowitz asks, “what is the common denominator of these contexts? What is the character of the fear of G*d that animates or should animate [us]? …the criterion of yir’at shamayim, G*d-fearingness, may be measured by one’s attitude toward the weak and the stranger.” (Studies in Devarim p. 253.)

In a seeming contradiction, we are to remember to forget. We are commanded to remember what Amalek did, but we are also commanded to blot out the memory of it in the world and “under heaven”. There is only one way to do that, and it is not through a simple act of forgetting. The act of blotting out the memory must be an ongoing effort. This is an interesting variation on the famous dictum that “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.” Our tradition teaches that Amalek will appear in the behavior of human beings throughout the generations, and we are to remember that it is up to us to resist it wherever and whenever we see it.

The only way that we can eradicate the lack of yirat shamayim is to nurture it, in ourselves and in others whom we teach and for whom we serve as role models. To be G*d-fearing is to uphold standards of common human decency, by reaching back to the source that informed them – religious ethics such as “love your neighbor as yourself” and defending them against cynicism and despair. Jews, as Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav famously said, are forbidden to despair.

This Shabbat is named for this imperative – Zakhor – “Remember!”  We are commanded to remember the signs of Amalek, and to keep an eye out for all that would attack, demean and take advantage of the weak and the stranger, and resist it. Amalek is rising in our day, and the signs are there in the social assault on all who are politically or economically weak, the refugees and immigrants who are strangers among us, the minority, the historically disadvantaged, the poor.

So much to do. In this holy work, watch out for your yetzer hara’. Your evil inclination will whisper to you that it’s too much, and you have to withdraw, you’re overwhelmed. My people, we have not yet begun to be tested. As we settle in to this struggle, each of us must find a way to draw strength to stay engaged. We are urged by the ancient wisdom of our people:

It is not up to you to finish the work, yet neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2.21)

Take care of yourself; like Shifra and Pu’ah, figure out which mitzvah is yours to do, and stay focused on it.* The great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik ז״ל once asked, “how can one have yirat shamayim, Awe of Heaven, without beholding the Heavens?” Keep your eyes on what matters, and let your eyes be filled with that which lifts you up – what you believe, what you trust, that which stirs your Awe. 

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

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