Blot out the memory

Purim is every child’s dream holiday; the story is like a fairy tale. Little girls dress up like Esther; little boys like Mordechai. In synagogues around the world we chant the story from the Scroll of Esther and boo every time the evil Haman’s name appears. It is a wonderful children’s holiday.

But it is so much more.

As adults, we appreciate the delicious ironies of the story. First, that a king who has to issue an edict that all husbands must be obeyed ends up taking orders from his wife. Second, that the plans of Haman have the opposite effect: He is destroyed and the Jews are saved. It is the story of reversals — the vulnerable becoming the strong.

As adults, we recognize that this is a story about power, and about how people without direct power learn to make the system work for them. We read between the lines and discover a story about living in the Diaspora and how we sometimes have to dance around those who might hurt us. We notice how much we long for a story where the powerless become powerful.

As adults, we cringe at the image of a young girl in the king’s harem. It reminds us that sexual slavery continues into this day, in all the countries where we live.

And as adults, we notice how bloody the story is. The Jews defend themselves against the people who tried to slaughter them, and they end up slaughtering their enemies. In the end, the Jews are saved. Purim has a happy ending, but as adults, we remember all the other times when there was a different ending.

The Sabbath before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembering. We read:  “Remember what Amalek did to you on the road as you came out of Egypt—how he attacked all the stragglers in the rear, those who were famished and weary. … Therefore when the Lord gives you security from your enemies in the land that God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.”

We read about Amalek on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman is a descendant of the tribe of Amalek. Jewish tradition suggests that Amalek will always have spiritual descendants:

“Remember … and blot out the memory. …  Do not forget.”

Remember and blot out—this is a strategy for healing from abuse. We learn from psychologists that victims of abuse need to first recover their memories of victimization, but at some point in the healing process, they need to blot out the power those memories have to control their lives. 

The command was never to blot out Amalek — just his memory. The command is to take rage and turn it to healing. The command is to blot out the memory of Amalek and, therefore, to blot out of ourselves the tendency to do to others what others have done to us.

Purim isn’t a children’s holiday. No, quite the contrary; it is the most grown-up of all of our holidays because it forces us to look at our dark side — the side that has been hurt, the side that is afraid, the side that wants to take revenge against those who have hurt us. Purim tells us that it is OK to have those feelings, to tell the story, even to celebrate the fantasy. But it reminds us not to act on the feelings of revenge.

Remember, and remember as well that the commandment is to blot out the memory of Amalek, not to blot out Amalek. There really are people in the world who will hurt other people. The mitzvah is to blot out the power they have to threaten the world. The mitzvah is not to take revenge, not to kill innocent people. The mitzvah is to do what we can to blot out the power of those who can do evil without letting the memory of our hurt lead us into easy answers.

At the end of the public reading of the story of Esther, we say a blessing: “Blessed are you, God, who takes up our grievance, judges our claim and avenges the wrongs against us. You bring retribution on our enemies and vengeance on our foes.”
This blessing reminds us, in very clear and direct terms, that vengeance should never be in our hands, but only in the hands of God.

Yes, we need to remember, but we also need to blot out the memory. We need to free ourselves from despair and darkness, and we need to find a way to bring light and joy and gladness and honor to everyone in the world.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (

From Pain to Peace Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

“Remember the long way that YHVH your God made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, that he might test you, by hardships, to learn what is in your hearts: whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).

My daughter just returned from Vietnam. When we heard her travel plans, her father and I struggled not to react as we did 40 years ago when someone pronounced the words, “I’m going to Vietnam.”

It is a testament to the Vietnamese people that they warmly welcome us as visitors. I think back on the 40 years since men (boys, really) of my generation struggled with the possibility of going to Vietnam, and I marvel at the healing process that makes friends of enemies and turns war into peace. I also think back to my own struggles “in the wilderness these past 40 years.” For in 1971, my mother and my sister both died.

“Ekev” — this week’s parasha — means “consequences.” As I ponder the collective trauma of the Vietnam War and my own personal trauma, I am filled with gratitude to know that unending rancor and suffering is not the inevitable consequence of hardship.

Moses posits that God tests us with hardships to learn what is in our hearts. While I don’t believe that our traumas are God-given, I know that life tests us. Each test offers an opportunity to search our own heart and learn what it means to be human.

We can find meaning in the pain, if we use it to open our hearts. A saying I once heard, “Grief is the knife that carves the space for the heart,” resonates with the last paragraph of the Kaddish, which reminds us that the end of mourning should be peace. But how do we find the compassionate heart of peace when we are so torn by the turbulent emotions that come in the wake of the losses that come with war — war between countries and war within the psyche?

We sit, our tradition tells us. While shiva, the seven-day period that follows a burial, translates as “seven,” it is also a homonym for the Hebrew word “to sit.” For seven days we sit, surrounded and sustained by community, looking for, in the words of the Mourners’ Blessing, “HaMakom,” “a Holy Place of Comfort” (actually, a name of God) “in the midst of those who mourn Zion and Jerusalem.” We look for comfort amid others who have known grief and carved hearts of compassion — hearts that have learned the Kaddish’s ultimate lesson: Seek peace.

Perhaps this is the intention of the biblical directive that those who encounter death, on the battlefield or elsewhere, should remain outside the camp for seven days (Numbers 31:19). They need time to ponder the consequences of acting precipitously after a trauma.  They need to sit.

But it doesn’t happen. Not only do we rarely sit shiva, more often than not we recoil from mourning rituals. Determinedly, we return to the world we once knew, demanding that it not be inexorably changed by our loss. We harden our hearts, remaining frozen by the contraction of heart, which happens at the moment of trauma. We don’t take the time to be taught by the fact of mortality or to listen to the words of the Kaddish. The consequence: We find no place for refining the heart. No space is created for tears to melt our trauma and soften our hearts or for anger to propel us to create the world, as it ought to be. We remain frozen, and our unprocessed trauma, pain, tears and anger ricochet through the generations and are acted out as depression, abuse and war. We don’t seek peace. We seek revenge. The consequence: more death.

These last 40 years have brought me a life I never could have imagined. I have traveled a wilderness through what poet Deena Metzger describes as a “wormhole,” in which my “assumptions about life [had to] dissolve to create a doorway through which something new [could] enter.” I welcome my daughter home from a vacation, unimaginable 40 years ago, as I anticipate Moses’ words during Elul, the month of reflection, and repeated on Yom Kippur, when he “place[s] before [us] life and death, the blessing and the curse,” and exhorts us to choose life “so that [we] and [our] descendants will live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). As this New Year approaches, may we sit in the midst of those who have made the courageous and surprising choice to cultivate life and peace as a consequence of heartbreak. May we find in our hearts the willingness to “seek peace and pursue it.”

Achre 5757

A couple with whom I’m close had their first child, so I ran to the bookstore to get them our favorite book on child care. I had forgotten the exact title (it was always “the baby book”) and the author’s name, so I thought I’d just scan the shelf until it turned up. Shelf? Try shelves — six of them, each 8 feet long and 10 feet high, and all on parenting. Need advice on building self-esteem, teaching morals, successful potty-training? There are volumes to teach it.

There is no word in traditional Hebrew for “parenting.” No term designates the set of skills, aptitudes and techniques necessary for raising children. This certainly cannot be a concept unknown to Jewish tradition. We are, after all, a tradition obsessed with children. Daily we are reminded: V’sheenantam le’vanech — “you shall diligently teach your children.” So why no word for “parenting”?

The Hebrew for “parents” is “horim”, and if we were to choose a noun form of the word describing the essence of being a parent, we would be forced to choose the word “Torah.” We have no prosaic term for “parenting,” because there is no Jewish idea of parenting skills and techniques isolated from the qualities of character, spirituality, wisdom and love. “Torah” — with all its deep, powerful and holy resonances — is the only possible word for what it takes to raise children. But don’t tell that to my local bookstore.

And that’s just the beginning. Move one shelf over, and you discover that “self-help” is now the biggest section in the store. Feeling anxious? Having difficulty communicating? Missing out on life’s joy? Here’s help. At least, here’s technique.

Americans have an obsession with technique, with doing it right. From home repair to lovemaking to parenting, we have this unquenchable thirst for a better technique. Traditional American pragmatism — the faith in the “right tool for the job” — has grown into a conviction that, for every human problem, there is a discrete technique that will lead to its solution.

Traditional American pragmatism — the faith in the “right tool for the job” — has grown into a conviction that, for every human problem, there is a discrete technique that will lead to its solution

But what about the deeper qualities of inner life, once associated with a good life — wisdom, sensitivity, integrity? I’m sure that in one of those books, there is a better way to fix a clogged sink. But I’m not convinced there’s some trick to fixing a broken relationship or some gimmick to opening a closed mind. Certainly, I’ve learned better ways to talk to my kids, to praise and to discipline, to set limits and to encourage responsibility. But, in the end, successful parenting is not a matter of effective technique but one of right living and sensitive loving. It is “Torah” in the broadest sense.

In the 10th chapter of Leviticus, which we read some weeks ago, the two elder sons of Aaron are killed in the process of offering aish zarah — alien fire. And the issue is raised again this week: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” Still, the exact nature of their infraction is a mystery. So are the circumstances of their deaths: Although they were burned to death, their bodies were carried out of the camp “by their tunics.” What sort of fire burns a man to death but leaves behind his tunic intact?

The Midrash posits a fire that entered the nostrils and destroyed in the inner man. From this, we can extrapolate the infraction: Nadab and Abihu entered the holy place with precise technique and skill. But that’s all they brought. No heart. No compassion for the people whose offerings they carried. No awe in the face of God’s presence. They had the technique down perfectly, but there was nothing inside.

Religion, too, can become a cult of technique — obsessed with detail and oblivious to higher purpose, disconnected from the qualities of depth and inwardness. But reduced to mere technique, religion, as with parenting and loving and so much of life, brings only emptiness. In this week’s portion, Aaron is invited back into the sanctuary — the inner place of holiness — to cultivate compassion, forgiveness and wholeness. And we are invited to go with him.

Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces rabbi Steven Leder, who will be completing a book (along with synagogue responsibilites at Wilshire Boulevard Temple) during the next six months.

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