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The Pharaohs and Hamans Keep Arising

04/07/2022 10:03:07 AM


On the Shabbat that precedes Purim each year, the maftir (the additional Torah reading) comes from verses in Deuteronomy which describe the attack on the Israelites by Amalek soon after the exodus from Egypt and sets in motion the “feedback loop” of Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat of Remembrance): the Israelites escape from the brutality of Pharaoh, only to then face the murderous indignities of Amalek, whose namesake later figures prominently in the Book of Esther, when yet another of our nemeses, Haman, is introduced as a descendant of Agog, the King of the Amalekites.  Haman casts lots to determine not if, but when, the Jews of Persia are to be slaughtered (under the King’s seal), echoing his forebear’s attack, as the Deuteronomy text reminds us on Shabbat Zachor:

זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—

אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כׇּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחֲרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים׃

how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.  (Deuteronomy 25:17)

Fast forward to the 20th century, and I can’t help but think of the musician Sting, who lyrically builds on this trope of brutality not foreign to anyone’s history, in “Murder by Numbers”: 

Once that you've decided on a killing
First you make a stone of your heart
And if you find that your hands are still willing
Then you can turn a murder into art
There really isn't any need for bloodshed
You just do it with a little more finesse
If you can slip a tablet into someone's coffee
Then it avoids an awful lot of mess

Now it would seem quite obvious and unnecessary for me to articulate once again how atrocious and despicable and outrageous are the willful acts of Putin.  He told us what he would do.  And he is doing it.  But what is making me extra angry is the indolent response of the West.  Ever since the horrors of Bucha were revealed, the news cycle and the experts and the pundits are exasperating themselves and their viewers, inanely reviewing the proof that the massacres happened, because Putin and his cronies are claiming that this was all self-induced and staged by the Ukrainians themselves in some ridiculous macabre theatrical spectacle in which the Ukrainians actually murdered their own citizens! The trouble is that while from the beginning there was clear and undeniable proof of Putin’s dark and evil intentions, not to mention the proof on the ground, the West has insisted on the need to adjudicate Russia’s claims, as if anyone would truly believe otherwise. In case you were wondering exactly what gas-lighting is, THIS IS IT!  Making a claim so outrageous that you force others to prove it wrong, thereby making them responsible for the mess you’ve created.

Friends, next time you watch the news or catch an article that is striving to prove Putin wrong with satellite images, graphs, charts, and eyewitness testimonies, I kindly suggest you turn it off or turn the page. We know what Putin did.  There is no daylight between what happened, what the Russians did, and what they planned.  Of course there will need to be war crimes tribunals, which unfortunately will take longer and require more fastidiousness from the prosecutors than any logical mind would think the circumstances warranted.  But in the meantime, we must call out the monsters for what they are—monsters. Pharaoh and Amalek and Haman and Hitler and Putin— they told us what they would do, and they did it. And we are reminded of what happens when we don’t pay proper attention: Israel leaves the “necheshalim” (the weakest ones) to fall to the back, making them “cannon fodder” and rendering the rest of Israel in need of divine redemption. Perhaps they, as seems to be the case with so many now, simply couldn’t—or wouldn’t—believe their own eyes. 

I know and understand the incredibly complicated geo-political truths that make this entire quagmire a nightmare and make the most pugnacious among us far more genteel.  What’s worse than this?  Only thermonuclear war.  But that doesn’t mean that we should be shy in our characterizations. This isn’t a matter of perspective. This isn’t something that we should weigh positives versus negatives.  If our religious tradition is to stand for anything at all, we must raise our voices loudly and clearly to call out this evil, to make sure that we and everyone who will listen knows that this is what evil looks like. In a situation where it feels like we are helpless to help, this in and of itself is maybe the most important contribution we can make.

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784