May 19, 2019

Bibi, Obama and Shabbat Zachor

While the Obama Administration negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to come to Washington, D.C. to address the U.S. Congress over the same issue next Tuesday, I cannot think of a more fitting place to spend this year’s Shabbat Zachor than Washington, D.C. I am in D.C. for this year’s AIPAC National Policy Conference, where, amongst other things, we will hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu on Monday, the day before his highly anticipated address to congress.

Negotiations with Iran, Bibi’s speech in Congress, and the AIPAC Policy Conference are the talk of the town this weekend, and how appropriate that Shabbat Zachor is the prelude to all of this.

Shabbat Zachor is the Shabbat that annually precedes the holiday of Purim. Every year, on the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim, we take out an additional Torah scroll in synagogue, and for the Maftir aliyah (the last person called to the Torah), we read three verses from the Torah, the first of which begins with the word Zachor – remember. What are we summoned to remember on Shabbat Zachor?

“Zachor — Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt. When they encountered you on the way, and you were tired and exhausted, they cut off those lagging to your rear, and they did not fear God. Therefore, when God gives you peace from all the enemies around you in the land that God your Lord is giving you to occupy as a heritage, you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. You must not forget.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Why do we annually “remember Amalek” on the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim?  The name “Amalek” has become synonymous with anti-Semitism. The Amalekites were a nation who launched a surprise attack against the Jewish people shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah deemed this unprovoked attack as an act of pure hatred and evil. Beyond this episode, the most powerful and famous expression of Amalekite anti-Semitism came in the person of the most famous Amalekite – Haman, from the Book of Esther.

The Book of Esther tells that Haman was a descendant of Agag, an Amalekite king. Haman the Amalekite was the first to ever conceive of a grand plot to annihilate the entire Jewish people: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed in the kingdom, whose laws are different from all others…if it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed” (Esther 3:8-9). Haman’s plot was ultimately foiled, but his name, and that of Amalek, remains a permanent part of Jewish consciousness as the root of genocidal anti-Semitism.

Interestingly, the three Shabbat Zachor verses begin with the word “Zachor – remember,” and conclude with the words “Lo Tishcach – Do not forget.” Why would the Torah seemingly repeat itself? Isn’t it sufficient to say “Zachor”? We read these three verses on the Shabbat before Purim in order to remind ourselves of what was attempted and done to us in the past (Zachor), and to raise our awareness and caution us of what the present and future might hold (Lo Tishcach). Remember the past, and do not forget what world you live in today and where it’s headed.

In December 1961, in the shadow of the Eichmann trial, Israeli author and Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon wrote a review of William Shirer's book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. In his review, Agnon praises Shirer's book for placing before our eyes the “horrific events that emerged from one small nation, who in the beginning we dismissed as if they were no big deal.”

From this powerful sentence, Agnon continues:

“This lack of caution on the part of the world is one of the fatal flaws of the world community, and is especially a flaw of the Jewish people — a people well versed in such flaws — as we convince ourselves to ignore those who hate and threaten us, and end up being hit and injured by them, sometimes to the point where there is no remedy for the injury.”

Agnon’s words send a chilling reminder (appropriately for Shabbat Zachor) that today’s politicians who negotiate with tyrannical regimes risk making the same fatal error as some did before World War II, where “we dismissed (Nazi Germany) as if they were no big deal… as we convince ourselves to ignore those who hate and threaten us, and end up being hit and injured by them, sometimes to the point where there is no remedy for the injury.”

Obama and Bibi will not meet in D.C., and really – who cares? In a world that is so hyper sensitive to politically correct behavior, it’s actually refreshing to see a world leader place the interests of his country (and of the entire world, in this case) above the politically correct concern over ruffling some political feathers. Some issues are larger than political protocol.

Mr. Netanyahu is here to deliver a bold message to Congress, and to the world, that we, the Jewish people, who have experienced persecution and genocide from Haman to Hitler, and today stand proudly as citizens promoting a free world safe from tyranny and oppression, are no longer able, nor can we afford, to “convince ourselves to ignore those who hate and threaten us.”

Let’s say Bibi decides to nonetheless contact President Obama, even only by text message. What might their exchange look like?

Bibi: Hi Mr. President – Zachor – Remember and Lo Tishcach, Do not forget.
Talk soon – Bibi.

Obama: Bibi, really, give me one good reason why you felt so compelled to buck protocol and deliver your address to congress?

Bibi: Mr. President — Those who do not remember the past
are condemned to repeat it. Take care…