Shabbat Zakhor: When a Lie is Right

The word Zakhor, which is the special name attached to this Shabbat before Purim, means “remember.” We are commanded to remember to blot out the name of Amalek, a historical enemy of our people who is seen recurring in those who have tried to eradicate the Jewish people from the earth: from Haman in the Purim story, to more recent villains, we see them as the personification of the evil we do to each other in human history.
The historian Hayim Yosef Yerushalmi wrote that it is a curious thing, to be commanded to remember to forget, for that is what we’re being told to do: forget hate, and work for the day when no one in the whole world with remember what that word means.
The battle against hate takes interesting forms. One of them is the use of a human stratagem which is all to often misused: the lie.
Consider if you will the following story from our ancient tradition, focusing upon Rabbi Meir, who lived in the Galilee during the Roman occupation (the time of the development of the Mishnah, the first code of Jewish law).
Rabbi Meir used to teach Torah every Erev Shabbat. One evening his teaching went longer than usual, and a woman who came regularly to hear him came home late to find her husband waiting for her. He was angry and refused to hear her explanation, that she had been at Torah study, and her apology, having not wanted to miss the end of the lesson and, perhaps, to have seemed to be disrespectful to the teacher.
“I will not accept your explanation nor your apology,” he said to her, “unless you go back to that Rabbi and spit in his face.”
The woman refused, and the two of them did not speak for one week, then two, then three.
Her friends came to her and asked her to take them to hear the Rabbi’s Torah teaching. Rabbi Meir had heard the story, and when he saw her, he immediately said to her,
“I am suffering from an eye condition, and have been told that someone must spit in my eye to cure it. Would you mind doing so for me?”
The woman spit in his eye.
“Seven times,” he said. She did so.
“Now go to your husband,” said Rabbi Meir, “and tell him this: you told me to spit at him once, but I did so seven times.” (VaYikra Rabbah 9.9)
This is how great the obligation is to make peace, our Jewish tradition insists: sometimes you may have to work around people’s emotions by allowing them to believe they’ve won the argument even when they’re wrong. In other words, sometimes it’s right to lie. Jewish ethical tradition insists that lying is sometimes the only way to peace.
This kind of lying is employed, Hillel taught, when we praise all brides as beautiful, or that the thing you just bought is wonderful (even though I don’t really like it or think you got a good deal). This is lying for the sake of someone’s feelings – which is the first, foundational building block of a caring community. It is not even really lying as much as it is insisting that there is more than one standard for beauty, or for appreciation of a belonging.
Notice that Rabbi Meir isn’t getting anything out of this lie which he creates. If anything, he is retreating from the insistence on the truth of the situation, for there is something greater here, and that is the well-being of a human relationship.
Something greater than truth? Yes. According to a midrash, the truth is that human beings should never have been created, and G*d chose to ignore that truth in order to create us, despite all our capacity to destroy, for the sake of all our capacity to love.
Ethical Jewish lying may thus be defined by the following parameters:
1. it is not a lie for personal gain or avoidance of consequences
2. it respects that some situations are beyond the reach of cool, calm, considered logical truth
3. it therefore allows a meta truth to triumph over a situational challenge
Meir’s lie allows the truth of the relationship to continue. Not everything has to be said, and not every point has to be forced.
Another story in the Talmud attached to Rabbi Meir has him making peace between two friends who have argued. He goes to the first and tells him that the other misses her terribly and realizes that she is right. Then he goes to the other, who hears the same thing. While the friends might have said that this was a lie, it was a momentary lie, for the larger truth is that they were friends, and they did miss the friendship.
There is a final, humbling reality key to this kind of compassionate, loving lying if it is to work, which is found in the realization that we don’t know truth anyway. We only know the perspective we have, and there are, we are taught, 70 ways to understand every verse and every word of Torah – and, how much more so, the situations of our lives.
On this Shabbat, give someone the benefit of the doubt. Realize that the truth you believe you know is only your truth, not the truth. And consider whether you might be using a truth you think you know as a weapon, where we are commanded, above all, to love peace, and pursue it.

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

Shabbat Zakhor: Remember? then Do Something

This Shabbat, on which we read the first words of the book VaYikra, called Leviticus, is also called Zakhor, “remember”. 

For Jews, to remember is to do. This assumption – that the mental act prompts a physical one – is encoded in the ancient Hebrew: 

וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה.

It came to pass in the course of this long time that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel were groaning under their bondage, and they cried out, and their cry came up unto G-d.

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב.

G-d heard their cries, and G-d remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Exodus 2.23-24)

Jewish tradition teaches that we are to regard stories which depict G-d in human terms for their role model value. G-d clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe those in need; G-d buried Moshe, so we see to it that people are properly buried; G-d provides food for all through the processes of nature, so we make sure that the natural abundance of our world reaches all who are hungry.

So too here: G-d remembers that human beings are suffering, and moves to alleviate it, and the wheel of history turns. And as a result of this ancient linguistic idiom, Judaism develops an ethic: to remember, to take note, is to act. A good person can never note a problem and simply turn away, assuming that someone else will respond.

And so it is that we do what we can to move that wheel when it is our turn, even if only by a few inches. We are not called upon to fix the problem we face, necessarily, but we are expected to do our part, as the rabbinic saying goes:

 לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל  It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 2.19)

So we do what we can, knowing that the only unacceptable response is the refusal to engage, and do what we can.

The Jewish ethic of remembering and doing offers us a curious question: What does it mean to say that G-d remembers? is it possible to say that G-d forgets? and for those of us who don’t think of G-d as a being who either remembers or forgets, but as a non-anthropomorphic reality or presence, what do either of those words mean?

Yizkor, “may G-d remember”, is the first word of the ritual we observe four times a year in memory of our loved ones who have died. If G-d is just a king on a throne, so to speak, then maybe that sort of divinity needs reminding. But consider it differently: perhaps we are expressing a desire for the memory of a loved one to continue to be remembered, in a way that causes an act, a change, in the world as it is, even though they are no longer with us. Perhaps what we are really saying is “may the world remember – and be affected by that memory”.

That is what brings us to the desire to see a photograph, or hear a voice recording, and know that it is extant in the world because it keeps a loved one more fully in that world. More profoundly appropriate, that is why in Jewish tradition one gives tzedakah as a memorial. Not because of the name alone, but because through the tzedakah that name is not only remembered, but good is enacted as well. And that is the moment in which we truly are sharing in a remembrance that is of G-d.

Every time you move that wheel just a bit, in memory of someone you loved, you bring that loved one into the Memory of the World.

This Shabbat is one of the special Shabbatot that reminds us of the approach of Pesakh – a time for Yizkor and a time for tzedakah. May you find a meaningful way to remember and to do, in honor of a memory you cherish.