For this week's Torah portion, we have something of a double header. First, the weekly portion is Tetzaveh, which continues last week's focus on the creation of the Tabernacle. In addition, we get a special additional portion, Zachor, along with a special haftorah, which opens up a chance to deal with some uncomfortable concepts in today's day and age. Plus, it's linked to Purim, which starts on Saturday night! Look below the orange doodle to explore further.
Along with its predecessor, Terumah, Tetzaveh is part of an odd gap in the middle of the Book of Exodus. After going through the narrative of the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, and the first sets of laws (both criminal and civil in essence), the Bible shifts to the building of the Tabernacle before going back to the narrative with next week's portion, which (spoiler alert!) includes the Golden Calf. This is relatively difficult for the rabbis to deal with, since it seems to them to be just as strange an insert as it does to us. The painstaking instructions regarding the construction of a temporary tabernacle seem out of place, and this week's portion, which focuses on the duties and garments of the priests, seem even moreso. Before getting to the main focus of this d'var torah, I do want to give a brief thought. Two medieval commentators, Rashi and Ramban, debate the role of these two portions. For Ramban, the Tabernacle is necessary to cure the impurities acquired in Egypt. The portions thus make sense in context, and the Bible is in chronological order. For Rashi, on the other hand, they actually take place following next week's portion, involving the Golden Calf, and are there in order to discuss atonement. Both positions open up interesting discussions involving the nature of the Bible and the nature of sin, but I'm going to steer clear of them for now in favor of discussing the more prominent issue for the week.
Over the course of the months of Shevat and Adar, Jews traditionally read 4 special portions, which are added after the main portion for the week. These portions are linked in some way to the spring holiday season. The first, read two weeks ago, discussed the half-shekel donation to the building of the Tabernacle, and fits the season as Jews now gather together after a winter that is light on holidays. That gathering makes now the perfect time to give charity towards the support of the community. The third, read next week, discusses the Red Heifer, which involves ritual purification on the way towards Passover. And the fourth directly involves Passover, coming right before the beginning of Nissan, the month of Passover, and discussing the commandments for that time period. The second, however, is unique. It is directly related to Purim, which of course was created much later (in the Persian period). More importantly, for our purposes, it discusses the role of opposition to the Jews.
It's rare to quote an entire Torah reading in one of these diaries, since the Torah portions tend to run long. But the additional portion is only 3 verses long, and the impact significant. The portion comes from Deuteronomy 25:17-19.
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you left Egypt. How he met you on the way, and attacked your rear, all the weak in the rear, when you were faint and tired, and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be that when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess it: you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!This is disturbing, of course, on many levels, as a modern person. Take revenge on an entire people for what their ancestors did? Wipe them out? Not to mention the contradiction in terms, since the Israelites are commanded to blot out their memory even as they remember. This commandment is given great significance by the ancient rabbis (as well as modern ones). It is considered to be one of the Biblical commandments to hear this portion read, and it is one of the few things done at a specific time that historical rabbis and contemporary Orthodox rabbis generally agree must be done by women as well. This disturbing nature continues in the special haftorah, the after portion.
The haftorah comes from I Samuel 15. This is the section where Saul confronts the Amalekites, led by their king, Agag. Saul is supposed to slaughter everything- men, women, children, animals, etc. Saul, however, takes the animals and property, as well as leaving Agag alive (presumably because he wants to kill Agag publicly). Samuel rebukes Saul for having done so. Even as Saul makes excuses, claiming that he was going to sacrifice all of the Amalekite animals, Samuel lets him know that God has withdrawn his favor and is going to remove the kingship from him. If anything, this haftorah brings home the problematic nature of the commandments regarding Amalek.
Finally, we get the holiday of Purim. Haman, the villain, is described as "the Agagite." That is, he seems to be descended from King Agag, and therefore is also an Amalekite. That, in turn, implies that the fighting between Haman and Mordechai is more that merely a fight between them; it's a rehashing of the old enmity, and the deaths of all of Haman's sons plays into that. It's not just that they were allied with Haman and wanted to kill the Jews, it's also that they were part of Amalek.
So how do the rabbis deal with this? Obviously, Jews today don't go around killing people for being part of Amalek. And even the rabbis of the Talmud objected to this. How could they do so, though, given the clear sentiment in the Bible? The rabbis of the Talmud explain that when King Sennacherib of Assyria ruled, he mixed together the nations, and so there is no way of knowing who is part of Amalek. Therefore, the commandment doesn't apply in the original fashion.
For those who have their timelines straight, this should lead to a significant question. Haman, and the Persians in general, come to power hundreds of years after the Assyrians. So how, exactly, can he be identified as an Agagite? The rabbis have two explanations. One is that he knew his heritage and was public about it. The other, though, has a more lasting effect on history. The rabbis of the Talmud say that one can choose to become part of Amalek, to make a conscious decision to kill the Jews. (As an aside, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NY uses the quotation from Deuteronomy, abbreviated as Remember...Never Forget. Many of the Torahs there are rolled to this place, as well. It's an interesting subtext that you won't get if you don't know the bible well or don't read Hebrew). Such people need to be stridently opposed, but their families are not part of Amalek and the commandment to strike them down doesn't apply to them (under this explanation, the sons of Haman in the Purim story presumably want to kill the Jews in their own right). The message changes from one of genocide to one that is entirely different: to oppose evil when it makes itself apparent, to oppose those who would destroy you, but not to hurt those who are blameless, even if related to those who are blameworthy. According to the Talmud, the descendants of Haman learned Torah in Bnei Brak, having converted to become Jews. They made a conscious choice to reject the choices of their families, becoming the better for it.