Tetzaveh Zachor – ways to get out of the cycle of violence?

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Shabbat Zachor – named for the second scroll reading which signals the imminent arrival of Purim –gives us the instruction to “Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came out of Egypt. How he met you by the way and struck the last strugglers, all those feeble ones at the back, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God.  So it shall be, when the eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land with the Eternal your god gives you as an inheritance, to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Yet the story in the narrative in Exodus is somewhat different.  “Then came Amalek and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moses said to Joshua, Choose men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand at the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said, and fought with Amalek, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went up to the top of the hill. And it happened that when Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed. And when he dropped his hand, Amalek prevailed. Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on each side of him, so that his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the sword. And God said to Moses “Write this for a memorial in a book, and repeat it in the ears of Joshua, for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.  And Moses built an altar and called it Adonai Nissi, (God is my banner) and he said “the hand upon the throne of the Eternal. God will have war with Amalek from generation to generation”

So which is it? Did Amalek come and prey upon the weakest individuals at the back of the caravan of people fleeing Egypt?  Or was it an apparently unprovoked attack while they were encamped? Was there a battle between armies, or was it a stealthy marauding and attacking of the most feeble?  Were Moses and Joshua active in some way, strategizing the battle? Or were they barely aware of the attacks at the end of the line of people? And who exactly is at war with Amalek? Is it God or is it the Israelites? And which of them is responsible for blotting out the memory of Amalek –  a persistent requirement down the generations, as persistent as telling the story of the exodus from Egypt,  the covenant accepted at Sinai, the story of Esther, Mordechai and Haman – all of which we are told to retell, to never allow the memory to be forgotten.

We are told that Amalek does not “fear God” –Amalek do not possesses “Yirat Adonai”

When we look closely at this term – fearing God – it appears to be one used particularly in circumstances that involve the choice to behave ethically.  Whenever someone could take advantage of a weaker person and doesn’t, but instead chooses to behave with moral integrity, they are described as having “Yirat Adonai”. So, for example, the Egyptian midwives who defy the order of the Pharaoh and who don’t kill the new-born baby boys are motivated by Yirat Adonai (Ex1:17). When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and tells them that he will not harm them he says “I fear God” (Gen 42:18). In the “holiness code” is possibly the most clear example – after the warning not to curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block in front of the blind we are told – “v’yareita me’elochecha – but you shall fear God, I am the Eternal”

The fear of God seems to be the awareness of a higher authority, of something beyond the individual and their desires. While religion is not the only generator of ethics, it is certainly a powerful one, and the idea of an eye that sees and an ear that hears – even if others do not – has historically kept many on a better path than they might otherwise have chosen.

The Amalekites seem not to have this corrective in their world view – they see no reason to behave ethically if that should conflict with their own gain or benefit.  They are the paradigm of amorality – and so it seems that God steps in, and the fight to blot out this life without moral guidance is one that takes place in every generation. The reminder to us that for all time we should blot out the memory of Amalek, to remember always to fight the habit of selfishness, of not caring for the weak or the vulnerable. While this greed and disregard for others is externalised into the Amalekites, the reality is that we all carry the tendency within us.  One of my teachers used to say – “it’s all very well being afraid of what God might think, but most of us are more concerned with what other people might think if they knew what we do – if only we cared as much about what God thinks as we do about what other people think, the world would be a better place!”

Yirat Adonai, the fear of God, is sometimes translated as “reverence” or “awe”, but I rather like the idea that one should be a Godfearer.  Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that we live our lives with all kinds of fears – realistic and irrational. Fear of old age, or pain or illness; of death, of loneliness, of poverty or somehow being “found out”. He said fear was something that confuses us and limits us- we never know what to be legitimately fearful of, what is a pointless fear.

“”Fear seems to be a universal malaise…What kind of fear is it that can overtake us, thereby uprooting all other kinds of fears-fears of failure….of rejection … or of disease? Only the fear of the Eternal God! … [During the High Holydays] We pray that this great fear will free us from all the lesser fears which lurk everywhere, upsetting and embittering our lives”

The Adon Olam has a verse based on psalm 118 – “Adonai Li, lo ira” – God is with me, I shall not fear. It is one of my favourite verses. In the psalm the second half of the verse asks “ma ya’aseh li Adam” – what can human beings do to me?  It is the same view of Yirat Adonai as that of Soloveitchik – Because if we have a secure and certain foundation of Yirat Adonai, of fear of God, then all smaller “mortal” fears fall away.

Talmud also sees Yirat Adonai as a necessary part of our relationship with God and our development as human beings, to become the best we can be.  In tractate 31b we read:

“Rabbah bar Rav Huna said, “Any person who has [mastered] Torah learning but lacks Yirat shamayim (reverence for heaven, or God) is like a treasurer who has been given the keys to the inner chambers, but who has not been given the keys to the outer chambers. How can [the treasurer] enter [the inner chamber]?”

In other words, Yirat shamayim is the necessary condition for us to truly understand what Torah is about. Without it, all our learning , all our worldly achievements are pointless. We might know the texts, the legal conclusions drawn from them, but without the element of relationship with God that is played out in our relationship with God’s creation, they remain cold academic prowess – we have missed the point of why we learn Torah.

The autumn festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Yamim Noraim in Hebrew – Noraim having the same root as Yira – fear or awe.  During the amidah we have the “uv’chen” insertions asking God to send Pachad, Eima and Yerucha on Creation –  all words used for fear/ awe or reverence. It was these prayers that Soloveitchik was referencing – once we understand Who to be in awe of, there is no need to tie ourselves up in pointless worry about other people. Yirat Adonai liberates us to perceive what is true and what is simply our own construction of the world. It allows us therefore to reorient ourselves and if necessary to change how we are living our lives, freed from the pressures that might otherwise distort our authenticity and integrity.

So what is the connection to the Book of Esther and the story of Purim?

Besides the fact that we are told that Haman is a descendent of Agag, and therefore descended  from the Amalekites, we see also that he behaves in an extraordinary and deeply amoral way. From the moment he is angered that Mordechai did not bow to him, he appears to overreact dramatically as he thinks only to revenge his injured pride. Indeed, the whole book is predicated on various modes of revenge. – And the motivation to take revenge on others is possibly the furthest away from the humanity we want to be, behaviour that is the polar opposite of Yirat Adonai.

The Book of Esther is famous also for the lack of both name of God and the presence of God – a reminder to us that without any sense of the God of Yirat Adonai we are vulnerable to the forces that surround us, forces that have no guiding morality with which to mitigate or  soften their actions. It is paradigmatically the book of Diaspora – the Jewish experience of being at best at guest and at worst a stranger in someone else’s land; And like the historical experience of Diaspora, one must always be conscious of treading carefully so as not to upset or provoke the host country, never quite knowing when a comfortable existence may suddenly become a precarious one, as the whims of the governing powers shift unpredictably.

But possibly the most painful connection between Megillat Esther and the command to remember and so blot out the Amalekites, is the violence that vibrates through the whole narrative, culminating in the Jewish uprising against those who would destroy them.

Surely there is more going on here than a fictionalising of the fears of a vulnerable diaspora community – however closely these fears follow a terrible historical reality. There is something in the overreaction of Haman to Mordechai – the desire to destroy a whole people because of the actions of one man – that needs closer examination:-

We know that the Amalakites are descended from Esau: bible tells us And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek (Gen 36:12). The Talmud fills in details:

Timna was a royal princess. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, “I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of the other nation.” From her Amalek descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her. (Sanhedrin 99b)

So the enmity between Israel and Amalek is rooted in the far past – and twice the Amalekites were treated badly – when Esau was cheated of the birthright by his younger brother Jacob, and when his daughter in law was rejected for conversion.

This may explain why the aggrieved Amalekites attacked the Israelites shortly after the exodus from Egypt. They are avenging the historical wrong.

But then further reading gives us the story of King Saul who fulfilled the commandment to blot out the Amalekites because of what they did after the exodus  –  and only the king, Agag, survived the massacre. (1 Samuel 15)

Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin. Mordechai was also of the tribe of Benjamin. Was Haman taking revenge not only because of hurt pride, but because he was avenging the massacre of his tribe by the tribal ancestors of Mordechai?

There are a number of literary devices that tie the various stories of the Amalekites and the Israelites to the Book of Esther.( For example the same words are used of the bitter cry of the betrayed Esau, and that of Mordechai when he learns of the plot to kill all the Jews . “ vayitz ‘ak tz ‘akah g ‘dola u’marah”  And he cried a great and bitter cry! ) It is almost as if the generational pain has been programmed into the very DNA of the protagonists.

So when we see the terrible violence play out once again in the Book of Esther, when we consider what it means to remember Amalek so as to blot him out, we see that we too are part of the chain that goes back to the terrible sibling rivalry of the Book of Genesis. It is never truly resolved – Joseph and his brothers find a way through to build a civil relationship but that is scarcely a true and full resolution.

The Book of Esther is a salutary reminder, not only that we are vulnerable to the continued hatred of those who choose not to “fear God”, but we are vulnerable too to playing out the violence in our own generation. It is a chain of attack or be-attacked scenarios, of taking revenge in turn down the generations, with never an end in sight. And the end of the book, with the Jews killing over seventy five thousand of those who hated them and wished to kill them, is not so much a victory as a tragedy.

Maybe we should wipe out the memory of Amalek  by no longer participating in the tit-for-tat violence, but demonstrate our Yirat Adonai by no longer prolonging this hatred. After all, Moses says that the war against Amalek is waged by God – not necessarily by us.

How can we stop the cycles of violence in our world? The Book of Esther provides one way – to fictionalise it, put the acting out into the realm of fancy-dress and carnival. In this way we can fulfil the requirements to remember without bringing the violence into the real world. To remember our ancestral pain without causing hurt to others would truly be acting with Yirat Adonai.

Shabbat Zachor, così denominato per la seconda lettura del rotolo, segnala l’imminente arrivo di Purim e ci dà l’insegnamento: “Ricordati di ciò che ti fece Amalek quando eri in viaggio, allorché uscisti dall’Egitto, che ti assalì sulla strada e colpì tutti coloro che affranti erano rimasti indietro mentre tu eri stanco e sfinito, e non temette Iddio. E quando il Signore tuo Dio ti darà tregua da tutti i tuoi nemici all’intorno nella terra che sta per darti in eredità perché tu ne prenda possesso, cancellerai il ricordo di Amalek di sotto al cielo, non dimenticarlo!” (Deuteronomio 25: 17-19)

Eppure la storia, nella narrazione dell’Esodo, è in qualche modo diversa. “Quindi venne Amalek e attaccò Israele in Refidim. Mosè disse a Giosuè: ‘Scegliti alcuni bravi guerrieri e va’ a combattere Amalek; domani io mi metterò sulla sommità della collina e terrò in mano la verga del Signore’. Giosuè eseguì il comando di Mosè iniziando battaglia contro Amalek, e nello stesso tempo Mosè, Aronne e Chur salirono in cima alla collina. Ora fintanto ché Mosè teneva alzate le sua mani vinceva Israele; quando le abbassava vinceva Amalek. Ma le braccia di Mosè erano pesanti, allora presero una pietra, gliela misero sotto, egli vi si assise sopra a Aronne e Chur sostenevano le sue braccia l’uno da una parte e l’altro dall’altra cosicché le sue braccia poterono sostenersi sino al tramonto del sole. E Giosuè sconfisse Amalek e la sue gente a fil di spada. Il Signore disse a Mosè: ‘Scrivi in un libro il ricordo di questo grande avvenimento e trasmettilo oralmente a Giosuè, ché Io ho stabilito di cancellare la memoria di Amalek di sotto il cielo’. Mosè fabbricò un altare che nominò: Dio è la mia bandiera. E disse: ‘Il Signore pone la mano sul Suo trono, guerra ad Amalek di generazione in generazione”.  (Esodo 17: 8-16)

Quindi, di cosa si tratta? Amalek venne a predare dagli individui più deboli nelle retrovie della carovana di persone in fuga dall’Egitto? O fu un attacco apparentemente non provocato mentre erano accampati? Ci fu una battaglia tra eserciti o avvenne un attacco furtivo con saccheggio verso i più deboli? Mosè e Giosuè furono in ​​qualche modo attivi, pianificando la battaglia? O furono a malapena a conoscenza degli attacchi nelle retrovie della colonna di persone? E chi, esattamente, è in guerra con Amalek? È Dio o sono gli Israeliti? E chi di loro è responsabile di cancellare la memoria di Amalek, una necessità persistente lungo le generazioni, persistente come il raccontare la storia dell’esodo dall’Egitto, del patto accettato nel Sinai, della storia di Ester, Mardocheo e Haman:  tutte cose che ci vien detto di ripetere, di non permettere mai che se ne perda il ricordo.

Ci viene detto che Amalek non “teme Dio”: Amalek non possiede “Yirat Adonai”.

Quando osserviamo più da vicino questa espressione, “temere Dio”, sembra che sia usata in particolare in circostanze che implichino la scelta di comportarsi eticamente. Ogni volta che qualcuno potrebbe trarre vantaggio da una persona più debole e non lo fa, scegliendo invece di comportarsi con integrità morale, viene descritto come “Yirat Adonai”. Quindi, ad esempio, le ostetriche egiziane che sfidano l’ordine del Faraone e non uccidono i neonati, sono spinte da Yirat Adonai (Ex 1:17). Quando Giuseppe si rivela ai propri fratelli e dice loro che non farà loro del male, dice “Temo Dio” (Gen 42:18). Nel “codice di santità” c’è forse l’esempio più chiaro: dopo l’avvertimento di non maledire i sordi, né di mettere un ostacolo davanti al cieco ci viene detto “v’yareita me’elochecha – ma avrai paura di Dio, Io sono l’Eterno”.

Il timore di Dio sembra essere la consapevolezza di un’autorità superiore, di qualcosa al di là dell’individuo e dei suoi desideri. Anche se la religione non è l’unico generatore di etica, lo è comunque in modo potente, e l’idea di un occhio che vede e un orecchio che ascolta, anche quando altri non lo fanno, ha storicamente tenuto molti su un sentiero migliore di quello che avrebbero altrimenti scelto.

Gli Amalekiti sembrano non possedere questo correttivo nella loro visione del mondo: non vedono alcun motivo per comportarsi eticamente quando ciò dovesse entrare in conflitto con il proprio guadagno o beneficio. Essi sono il paradigma dell’amoralità, e quindi sembra che in ogni generazione vi sia l’intervento di Dio e la lotta per estromettere questa vita senza guida morale. Ci viene ricordato che in ogni tempo dovremmo cancellare la memoria di Amalek, ricordandoci sempre di combattere l’abitudine all’egoismo, al non prendersi cura dei deboli o dei vulnerabili. Nonostante questa avidità e disprezzo per gli altri siano esplicitati negli Amalekiti, la realtà è che tutti portiamo dentro di noi questa tendenza. Uno dei miei insegnanti era solito dire: “è cosa buona essere spaventati da ciò che Dio potrebbe pensare, ma la maggior parte di noi è più preoccupata da ciò che gli altri potrebbero pensare se sapessero ciò che facciamo: se solo ci importasse nella stessa misura di cosa Dio pensa di ciò che facciamo così come ci importa di quanto ne pensano gli altri, il mondo sarebbe un posto migliore!”

Yirat Adonai, il timore di Dio, a volte viene tradotto come “riverenza” o “soggezione”, ma mi piace abbastanza l’idea che si dovrebbe essere Timorati di Dio. Joseph Soloveitchik scrisse che viviamo le nostre vite con ogni tipo di paura: realistiche e irrazionali. Paura della vecchiaia, o del dolore o  della malattia; della morte, della solitudine, della povertà o  di essere in qualche modo “smascherati”. Disse che la paura è qualcosa che ci confonde e ci limita: non sappiamo mai di cosa avere legittimamente paura e cosa invece sia una paura inutile.

“La paura sembra essere un malessere universale … Che tipo di paura può sopraffarci, estirpando così tutti gli altri tipi di paure: paura del fallimento … del rifiuto … o della malattia? Solo la paura dell’Eterno Dio! … [Durante le Festività Solenni] Preghiamo affinché questa grande paura ci liberi da tutte le paure minori che si nascondono ovunque, sconvolgendo e amareggiando le nostre vite”.

L’Adon Olam ha un verso basato sul salmo 118: “Adonai Li, lo ira – Dio è con me, non avrò paura”. È uno dei miei versi preferiti. Nel salmo, la seconda metà del verso chiede “ma ya’aseh li Adam – cosa possono farmi gli esseri umani?” È la stessa visione di Yirat Adonai che troviamo in Soloveitchik: perché se abbiamo una base sicura e certa di Yirat Adonai, della paura di Dio, allora tutte le più piccole paure “mortali” svaniscono.

Anche il Talmud vede Yirat Adonai come parte necessaria della nostra relazione con Dio e del nostro sviluppo come esseri umani, per diventare il meglio che possiamo essere. Nel trattato 31b leggiamo:

            “Rabbah bar Rav Huna ha detto: ‘Qualsiasi persona che abbia [padroneggiato] gli insegnamenti della Torà ma manchi di Yirat shamayim (riverenza verso il cielo o Dio) è come un tesoriere a cui siano state date le chiavi delle camere interne, ma a cui non siano state date le chiavi delle camere esterne. Come può [il tesoriere] entrare [nella camera interna]?’”

In altre parole, Yirat shamayim è la condizione necessaria per comprendere veramente di cosa tratti la Torà. Senza di essa, tutto il nostro apprendimento, tutti i nostri traguardi mondani sono inutili. Potremmo conoscere i testi, le conclusioni legali tratte da essi, ma senza l’elemento di relazione con Dio che si gioca nel nostro rapporto con la creazione di Dio, rimangono fredde abilità accademiche: abbiamo perso il punto del perché impariamo la Torà.

Le festività autunnali di Rosh Hashanà e Yom Kippur in ebraico sono chiamate Yamim Noraim e  Noraim ha la stessa radice di Yira: paura o timore reverenziale. Durante l’amidà abbiamo le “uv’chen”,  inserti che chiedono a Dio di inviare Pachad, Eima e Yerucha sulla Creazione, tutte parole utilizzate a significare paura/timore o riverenza. Queste erano le preghiere cui faceva riferimento Soloveitchik: una volta che capiamo di chi avere timore reverenziale, non c’è bisogno di legarci in inutili preoccupazioni per le altre persone. Yirat Adonai ci libera facendoci percepire ciò che è vero da ciò che è semplicemente una nostra idea artefatta del mondo. Ci consente quindi di riorientare noi stessi e, se necessario, di cambiare il modo in cui viviamo la nostra vita, liberi dalle pressioni che potrebbero altrimenti distorcere la nostra autenticità e integrità.

Quindi, qual è il legame con il Libro di Esther e la storia di Purim?

Oltre al fatto che ci viene detto che Haman è discendente di Agag, e quindi discende dagli Amalekiti, vediamo anche come egli si comporti in modo straordinariamente e profondamente amorale. Dal momento in cui si arrabbia per il fatto che Mardocheo non si è inchinato a lui, sembra reagire in modo esagerato, se pensa solo di vendicare il proprio orgoglio ferito. In effetti, l’intero libro è basato su varie modalità di vendetta, e la motivazione del vendicarsi sugli altri è forse quanto più lontano ci sia dall’umanità che vogliamo essere, un comportamento che è diametralmente opposto a Yirat Adonai.

Il Libro di Ester è famoso anche per la mancanza sia del nome di Dio che della presenza di Dio: per ricordarci che senza alcun senso del Dio di Yirat Adonai siamo vulnerabili alle forze che ci circondano, forze che non hanno una guida morale che mitighi o ammorbidisca le loro azioni. È il libro paradigmatico della Diaspora: l’esperienza ebraica di essere nella migliore delle ipotesi ospite e nel peggiore dei casi estraneo nella terra di qualcun altro; E, come nell’esperienza storica della Diaspora, si deve essere sempre consci di procedere con cautela per non sconvolgere o provocare il paese ospitante, senza mai sapere quando un’esistenza confortevole possa improvvisamente diventare precaria, poiché i capricci dei poteri governativi si spostano in modo imprevedibile.

Ma, probabilmente, la connessione più dolorosa tra la Megillat Esther e il comando di ricordare e quindi cancellare gli Amalekiti, è la violenza che vibra attraverso l’intera narrazione, culminante nella rivolta ebraica contro coloro che vorrebbero distruggerli.

Sicuramente qui c’è molto di più che una messa in finzione delle paure di una vulnerabile comunità della diaspora, per quanto da vicino queste paure seguano una terribile realtà storica. C’è qualcosa nella reazione eccessiva di Haman verso Mardocheo, nel desiderio di distruggere un intero popolo a causa delle azioni di un solo uomo, che necessita di un esame più attento:

Sappiamo che gli Amalekiti discendono da Esaù: la Bibbia ci dice “Timna concubina di Elifaz (figlio di Esaù) gli partorì Amalek” (Gen 36:12). Il Talmud dà ulteriori dettagli:

            Timna era una principessa reale. Desiderando diventare proselita, andò da Abramo, Isacco e Giacobbe, ma essi non la accettarono. Così andò e divenne una concubina di Elifaz, figlio di Esaù,         dicendo: “Preferirei essere una servitrice di questo popolo piuttosto che una nobile nell’altra nazione”. Da lei discese Amalek che afflisse Israele. Perchè ciò? Perché non avrebbero dovuto respingerla. (Sinedrio 99b)

Quindi l’inimicizia tra Israele e Amalek è radicata nel lontano passato, due volte gli Amalekiti vennero trattati male: quando a Esaù fu tolto con l’inganno il diritto di nascita da suo fratello minore Giacobbe, e quando sua nuora fu respinta per la conversione.

Questo potrebbe spiegare perché essi, danneggiati, attaccarono gli israeliti poco dopo l’esodo dall’Egitto. Vendicano l’errore storico.

Ulteriori letture ci restituiscono poi la storia del re Saul, che adempì il comandamento di cancellare gli Amalekiti a causa di ciò che fecero dopo l’esodo, e solo il re Agag sopravvisse al massacro. (1 Samuele 15)

Saul apparteneva alla tribù di Beniamino. Anche Mardocheo apparteneva alla tribù di Beniamino. Haman si stava vendicando non solo per l’orgoglio ferito, ma perché vendicava il massacro della sua tribù da parte degli antenati tribali di Mardocheo?

Ci sono un certo numero di dispositivi letterari che legano le varie storie degli Amalekiti e degli Israeliti al Libro di Esther. (Ad esempio, le stesse parole sono usate nel grido amaro del tradito Esaù, e in quello di Mardocheo quando apprende del complotto per uccidere tutti gli ebrei: “Vayitz ‘ak tz’ akah g ‘dola u’marà” E pianse un grande e amaro grido!) È quasi come se il dolore generazionale sia stato programmato nel DNA stesso dei protagonisti.

Quindi, quando vediamo la terribile violenza che si ripete nel Libro di Esther, quando consideriamo cosa significhi ricordare Amalek in modo da cancellarlo, constatiamo che anche noi facciamo parte della catena che risale alla terribile rivalità tra fratelli del Libro della Genesi. Non è mai veramente risolta: Giuseppe e i suoi fratelli trovano un modo per costruire una relazione civile, a malapena una risoluzione piena e autentica.

Il Libro di Esther è un benefico sollecito: non solo siamo vulnerabili al continuo odio di coloro che scelgono di non “temere Dio”, ma siamo anche vulnerabili alla messa in atto della violenza nella nostra stessa generazione. È una catena di scenari “attaccare o essere attaccati”, di vendicarci a nostra volta nello scorrere delle generazioni, senza mai una fine all’orizzonte. E la fine del libro, con gli ebrei che uccidono oltre settantacinquemila di coloro che li odiavano e desideravano ucciderli, non è tanto una vittoria quanto una tragedia.

Forse dovremmo cancellare la memoria di Amalek non partecipando più alla violenza occhio per occhio, e dimostrare il nostro Yirat Adonai non prolungando più questo odio. Dopo tutto, Mosè afferma che la guerra contro Amalek è condotta da Dio, non necessariamente da noi.

Come possiamo fermare i cicli di violenza nel nostro mondo? Il libro di Ester fornisce un modo: mettendola in scena e trasportandola nel regno del costume e del carnevale. In questo modo possiamo soddisfare i requisiti del ricordare senza portare la violenza nel mondo reale.     Ricordare il nostro dolore ancestrale senza causare danni agli altri sarebbe davvero recitare con Yirat Adonai

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

 

 

Parashat Vayishlach: a bite or a kiss? a messenger or an apology?

In parashat vayishlach we see the moment where Jacob the trickster, the one focussed only on himself and his own needs and aspirations, is able to change. He is on his journey home, a wealthy and powerful man. However he must first encounter his estranged brother Esau whom he had dispossessed from his birthright and from whose terrible pain and murderous anger he had fled all those years ago.

In preparation for the encounter he sent out messengers in order to both impress Esau with his power and wealth, and in order to try to find out what was likely to be ahead of him. The messengers’ report on their return distressed him – they had met Esau on his way to meet Jacob, accompanied by four hundred men. His response – to try to save what he could of his family and possessions by dividing them into two groups, and then he prayed for help, invoking the merit of his ancestors and the promises God had made to him regarding his descendants. Following this, he began selecting groups of animals that he could send ahead as gifts to Esau, in order to appease him before their meeting. Then he says a particularly curious sentence, given what is about to happen:

וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי”

And after this, I will see his face, perhaps he will raise my face/accept me”

Having taken his family, divided into two camps, across the ford of Jabok and over the stream, Jacob was left alone, yet in the same sentence that tells us  וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ that he had been left behind and was completely and utterly alone, we are also told

     וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר:

And a man wrestled with him until the morning dawned.

He was alone, but he was not alone. He was in the dark of the night. He was wrestling. His struggles through the dark night of his soul changes him forever. He is in liminal transitional time after which he will be transformed and given a new name – though not so transformed that he would lose his old name forever….

Who is Jacob wrestling? The narrator of the text tells us it is “ish- a man.”

The wrestler himself is more complex telling Jacob that he has struggled with God and with men and has prevailed:

כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל:

Later in the text Jacob seems to believe the fight was with God, as he names the place Peniel, the face of God:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי:

And he continues “for I have seen God face to face and my soul is preserved”

Traditional explanations are that Jacob is fighting an angel, in particular the guardian angel of Esau who is attempting to weaken Jacob before the meeting, or that ‘the’man’ was Jacob himself, struggling with himself and his own feelings and needs, with the two inclinations all humanity possess – the yetzer ha’ra and the yetzer ha’tov, the inclination to be motivated primarily for one’s own self-interest versus the inclination to be motivated for the good of the community and of others, battling it out for charge of his soul.

There is, I think, a clue to this critical and iconic night of struggle in another part of the sidra. When Jacob meets Esau we find that Esau was coming with a welcoming party not a gang of ‘heavies’, and we are told that far from there being a clash between the brothers there is instead from Esau’s side real emotion and warmth at their reconciliation. We are told that he ran to Jacob and embraced him and fell upon his neck and kissed him:

 וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו [צַוָּארָ֖יו] וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ:

But written in the Masoretic text over the words “and he kissed him” וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ are dots, and these are understood in the midrash to be there to draw attention to the word and to add to its meaning. Rashi quotes midrash (Sifrei) and comments that the dots are there to show that the kiss, while it seemed whole hearted, was actually insincere. But the weight of rabbinic tradition goes even further. In Midrash Genesis Rabbah (78:9) we are told that R.Yannai plays on the word ‘vayeshakei’hu’ and by changing just one letter in the word while keeping the sound, one can translate it as Esau biting Jacob. From this midrash comes the stream of Rabbinic traducing of the biblical Esau, to develop him into an enemy of the Jewish people, eventually becoming Edom, the code for the Roman oppression.

 

I do not like this interpretation, being in fact a big fan of the biblical Esau who just couldn’t somehow get it right, but who clearly loved his parents and who wanted to be the son they wanted. However, I would suggest that what was good enough for R.Yannai is good enough for us – so let us look at another word that could be available to the midrashic technique of creating a homophone with a meaning that can alter our understanding of what is happening. ‘Vayishlach’, the name of the sidra, comes from the root שָׁלַח ‘to send’

One homophone, a letter different, is the root סָלַח ‘to pardon or to forgive’

When Jacob then is sending out messengers, maybe we could see that he is in the beginning of the process of searching out for forgiveness, something he clearly needs to do as he has achieved so much of the material possessions he has desired but has not yet matched this achievement with the facing of what he did that had brought him to Laban as a young and frightened boy, alone in the world after having betrayed his father and brother, effectively excluded from his father’s house and inheritance.

So what happens if we bring this word play back into the text? When Jacob wrestles with a man while all alone, while he recognises that the man is in some way both God and human, he is indeed wrestling with himself and his own inclinations. But what he is wrestling with is not so much his two natures but his desire for pardon and his desire not to have to ask for it, not to have to climb down from his arrogance and his power and admit his wrong doing. In Jungian terms, Jacob is fighting with his Shadow side, the darker side of his own self, the irrational and instinctive and unknown aspect of his personality where a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else.

 

We all know the phrase that ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. For some people it is so hard that they will do almost anything not to have to say it. They will pass on the blame to others, project their feelings so that they see the reconciler as the attacker, reconstruct their narratives of the past so that they will appear the blameless ones, or even the victims of others. They will blacken the name of someone else in preference to owning up to their own mistakes. They will put obstacles in the way of meeting and encountering the other, so as not to have to face up to the humanity and reality of the person whom they have wronged. They will see the ‘admission’ of an apology as something that makes them vulnerable, lose power, or lose their status and become in some way the loser. Saying sorry might mean taking some responsibility for a problem, diminish them in some way, give others the right to judge…

 

We see this everywhere, from individual human interactions to workplace politics to the way that nations in conflict will absolve themselves from the problem and blame it all on the other side. The midrash that claims that Esau bites Jacob rather than kisses him is a manifestation of it. So the idea that Jacob is wrestling in order to say ‘selicha: I am sorry, please forgive me’, is a nice counterpoint.

 

It takes him the whole night and he is physically damaged in the encounter, leaving it with a permanent limp to remind him of both the struggle and the outcome. He is also changed – he can become Israel, the one who struggles with God- while sometimes reverting to Jacob, the heel and the trickster. Saying sorry isn’t a one-time thing – we can find it hard to repeat the word, or to say it in the next situation we should be saying it having made another mistake.

 

And yet apologising when we are at fault is the beginning of redemption. It is about recognising the effect of our actions and taking responsibility for them in order to change our selves and out behaviours. It is at the root of the idea of teshuva, of return to God, of return to the right behaviour that we would want and expect from ourselves.

It is the moment we can turn from Jacob to Israel, the moment when we stop focussing on our pride in our possessions and begin focussing with empathy on others and their needs.

 

Saying sorry is the pivotal moment when we change, when we notice our negative impact and begin to heal it. It is a lifetime process, a skill we need to practise again and again, the moment when we stop being obsessed with our own power and status and rightness and look around us with empathy and compassion and try to care more about others than about ourselves.

When Jacob wrestles and the dawn breaks, he realises that his struggle has meant that his soul is preserved, the sun comes up, the dark night of the soul is over. How did he preserve his soul? He learned of the importance of recognising his own responsibility in what he had done, he said ‘selicha’ he made his peace with the part of him that didn’t want to admit to any flaw or vulnerability. He took his place in the world and limped out, damaged by the encounter but also blessed by it, into the future.

Vayigash: making peace is a process with which we have to keep faith, however unlikely it may seem

Making peace between two hurt and damaged parties must be one of the hardest activities in the world. Often, simply the absence of war must be enough for us, something which may look like peace but which is a far more shallowly rooted plant than we would like to acknowledge.

Sidra Vayigash tells the story of the making of peace between brothers – not a new story in the book of Genesis, and when one looks closely not even a real and complete peace – but at least it is more than the simple absence of war.

The sidra opens with the encounter between the powerful Egyptianised Joseph and his distraught and powerless older brother Judah. Judah cannot bear having to return to his father to tell him that Benjamin, only remaining son of Rachel, is held hostage in Egypt. With an impassioned speech he offers himself as hostage instead. This has an unexpected result – the man before him cries loudly and reveals himself to be the long lost boy who had been so hated by his older brothers they had thrown him into a pit to die a slow and pitiless death, but who had been rescued from that fate and sold into slavery instead. Now he stands before them, the second most powerful man in Egypt, and he is weeping and embracing them and forgiving them and even suggesting that everything had been God’s plan – they bear no fault for what they did.

This is the third meeting of the brothers with Joseph, and one has to ask – what finally prompted him to reveal himself and to effect reconciliation with them? Up till now he had treated them quite cruelly – accusing them of being spies, demanding that Benjamin be brought to Egypt, framing Benjamin as a thief and in an act of summary justice ruling that Benjamin must remain in Egypt, leaving his father totally bereft.

What is the riddle enmeshed within the story for us to untangle here? Is it about revenge? About justice? About the ongoing quest for repentance and forgiveness? And if so, is there real repentance and can we say that there is real forgiveness?

The whole of the book of Genesis speaks of rivalry between siblings, of the terrible situations such jealousy can cause; about the ways that people can continue to live with a partial resolution, and about the quest for a real resolution.

Here in Vayigash comes the resolution par excellence – but even this is not some fairy tale ending, but a qualified and measured response which is part of a longer process.

Joseph meets his brothers three times before he reveals himself to them. Each time he ends in tears which he sheds privately. In the first encounter the brothers have come down to Egypt for food and Joseph is the man in charge of rationing. We are told “when Joseph saw his brothers he recognised them, but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them.” (Gen. 42:7). He accused them of being spies, confined them to jail for three days and then demands that they return to Canaan and bring back Benjamin to Egypt. He is completely unaware of them as human beings – they are objects for his anger and revenge, and tools for him to contact his full brother Benjamin – nothing more. He does not trust them, he does not care about them, he knows nothing much about them and doesn’t try to find out whether they feel bad about what happened to him, or whether they have felt remorse about what their father had suffered with Joseph’s loss.

When he meets them for a second time, Joseph is brought a step closer towards reconciliation. This time he asks some questions which bring him into a connection with his family – he asks about his father’s health. When he sees Benjamin he is overcome by emotion – but he takes care that no one shall see his tears and hurries out of the room to weep in private, then washes his face and returns composed. (Gen. 43:30). It is through Benjamin, his full brother, the one who had not conspired to murder him that Joseph begins to reconnect with his past. But he controls himself and his emotions enough to set a test – in effect he recreates the same scenario that had him sent into slavery as a young boy – he puts the older brothers in charge of the fate of the younger one, what they do will determine his life or death. So he puts his silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack, sends his steward to retrieve the men and discover the stolen goblet – and now how the brothers respond will be crucial – will they let Benjamin be taken into Egypt and lost to his father, or will they try to save him

And so to the third encounter – Judah, wholly repentant and distraught, pleads with Joseph on behalf of his father who has already lost a child dear to him. He offers himself in place of the boy – and Joseph sees that the brothers really have changed, they have made teshuvah and when given the opportunity to sin again they set themselves against it.   Joseph finally gives way to his feelings and sobs so loudly he can be heard all over the palace. He confronts these Canaanite strangers as brothers and forgives them. There is reconciliation and the book of Genesis is able finally to witness a sibling rivalry that is resolved, to show that with repentance comes forgiveness, and so it is possible to move on in one’s life into new and different places.

But there is more to this story than a happy ending – we know that life is no fairy tale, and neither is bible. The reconciliation between the boys is certainly more than we have ever seen before, but we should not forget that it took over 20 years to achieve, that during it there was much pain and anger, thoughts of revenge and retribution, a clear denial of what had gone on and long term suppression of guilt and responsibility. We know that Joseph did not contact his family – not even his father or his beloved younger brother – who lived with the knowledge that he had gone to his death in a horrible way, that there was no certainty however, no possibility of complete and completed mourning. We know too that Joseph had to struggle with his own feelings about his brothers. A gap of 20 years did not automatically resolve the pain and the animosity – just because time had passed it did not mean that time had healed, and anyway there had been such hostility between them for so long that even before they had placed him in a forsaken pit they were unable to even speak civilly with him.

Having forgiven them he set them up in Goshen, far away from the palace where he continued living. When their father lay dying they had to send for Joseph – evidently he was not a frequent and dutiful visitor to his resettled family, and he waited till his father lay dying before introducing his own two sons to him.

The narratives about rivalry between siblings, begun with the murderous anger of Cain against Abel, finally end here with the tears and embraces of Joseph and his bothers. There is forgiveness and some limit to the ongoing anguish, but all is not sweetness and light. It never is and we would find the bible unbelievable if, after all that had gone on, there would be no hint of the shadowlands of pain left as a result of those relationships over so many years. As Ishmael and Isaac could never fully reconcile, as Jacob and Esau were able to weep and kiss and then go their separate ways, so too there is a boundary to this rapprochement. What makes this story different is that it is enough – there is repentance, there is forgiveness, there is insight, there is an element of acknowledgement of wrongs on both sides.

Making peace is never easy, it doesn’t simply happen, it takes time and it takes insight and it takes some unqualified repentance and some unqualified forgiveness. There will be the urge to punish, to take vengeance, to hide one’s tears in private and present a tough and intractable face in public. There will be the urge to accuse the other of all sorts of crimes, to see them as less than valuable. All this is normal and natural and part of the process, but for peace to come about – even for this curious state of cold peace that we are so used to in our modern world – there has to be a willingness to keep faith with the process, to meet the other side again and again, to keep trying.

The person who broke the impasse between Joseph and his brothers was not Joseph, it was Judah, one of the brothers who had been central to the plot to destroy him years before. Judah, who is our named ancestor, from whom the word Jew is derived. It was Judah who put himself on the line for a more important principle, who offered himself as hostage if it would free Benjamin from slavery and return him safely to the old man who was their father. Judah was the one who took the risk, who took the initiative and approached the harshly judgmental and uncompromising Egyptian potentate if front of him. He is our ancestor and he is our role model. He shows us that even in the most unlikely of situations our insight and our willingness to act upon it, will save us. May we continue his work in our own generation, and help to bring about some form of peace in our own time.