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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.

Shabbat Shalom

Originally posted to JLan on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 08:27 AM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets , Elders of Zion, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I read quite an interesting book (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Palafox, blueyedace2, Fishtroller01

    a short while back, called "Laying Down the Sword", by Philip Jenkins. It discusses the verses in the Judeo-Christian Bible that call for violence, and compares them with violent verses from the Quran. (In a nutshell, the Biblical verses come off looking far worse by comparison.)

    One of most disturbing ones is the command involving Amalek. The Israelites are commanded to entirely wipe out an entire people: men, women, children, even livestock (as you point out above.) In his book, Jenkins discusses this kind of warfare (called "herem" warfare, in which a entire city or people is completely destroyed as a sort of "burnt offering" to God). Sometimes this has been excused with explanations like "Genocide was common at this time" or "Everyone did it." According to Jenkins, though, though intertribal warfare was common in the Middle East, the idea of wiping out an entire people (not to mention their livestock!) was unknown. Women, animals, material possessions, etc. were commonly taken as plunder -- this is, after all, what makes "sense" from an economic point of view, as King Saul recognizes.

    There's something even more chilling about the fact that -- as my pastor pointed out at our Bible study a few weeks back -- the word used to refer to this genocidal destruction is the SAME word used to refer to a burnt offering to God that is entirely consumed. In other words...a "holocaust" offering.

    Living when we do and having seen the indescribably horrific consequences of ethnic cleansing and genocide, I'm not sure we can any longer excuse or explain away these verses. (Personally, I can't worship any God that would advocate genocide -- in my view, either He didn't command it or it didn't happen in that way and the texts were recorded wrong.) Perhaps "do not forget" is really all that we can do with this sort of story: not "never forget" to hate and persecute, but "never forget" the tragic consequences of such hate.

    "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell) Join the Forward on Climate Rally on February 17!

    by Eowyn9 on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 09:38:25 AM PST

  •  I never understood ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    How the Saul/Samuel/Agag story could have been literally true rather than an exaggeration.

    Supposedly Saul slew all the Amalekites, except for Agag, whom he imprisoned. Then Samuel came and gave his speech rebuking Saul, leading to the events where Saul's star fell and David's rose. Then while Agag was still in prison, he was killed by being hacked to pieces. Did I get that right?

    So the question is: if Haman is an Agagite, how did that happen? He would have had to impregnate some woman in the brief time between his capture and his execution, while he was being guarded by Saul's soldiers.

    Either "all" Amalek wasn't wiped out, or we need to accept the symbolic meaning of "Amalekite".

  •  Ezekiel Reference (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    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.
    This sentiment (hurting the blameless) seems to be reflected in the passages in Ezekiel where the Lord questions Ezekiel:
    "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge'? As I live...this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins shall die."

    "We will find fulfillment not in the goods that we have, but in the good we can do for each other." ~ RFK

    by paz3 on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 10:53:13 AM PST

  •  Reading the scriptures as symbols... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eowyn9, K S LaVida

    ...the non-expert version. What do I see... do what you like with it :)

    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!

    Beginning with "Remember" and ending with "don't forget" tells me that we the humans collectively are prone to a sort of "amnesia." So much that we have to be reminded to not to forget something. And to forget something.

    "Amalek," whether walked on earth as a physical being or not, represents "evil." Only "evil" does not "fear God." And only "evil" "attack[s] from rear, all the weak in the rear, when [we are] faint and tired. That "rear" to me is our amnesia prone "human" side which is vulnerable to deception. "Evil" is not an honorable enemy; it does not attack directly, face to face, like in an honest battle. What it does best is to "deceive" and attack from the rear, having studied our weak spots.

    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
    "It shall be" means per-ordained. "...given rest from all your enemies around you" means there will be no enemies, further meaning, we will be healed mentally, resting from our broken state of mind. The "other" will no longer be the "enemy," and that means there will be peace of mind, literally :)

    If I read the physical "land" as a symbol, that "land" is not really a place on a map but also a state of mind, for we will never have peace (rest from all of our enemies) on any piece of land while we are not mentally in peace.

    And when we posses this healed state of mind, we shall remember to blot out the "memory of evil" that caused us harm by attacking from the rear (deceiving us from within our weakness: memory).

    According to scripture, we shall heal from our broken mental state (rest from all enemies) and when we are (mentally) restored, we must remember to forget (yeah), in other words, "blot out of memory" of "evil." It is the "memory of Amalek-the evil" that has caused/is causing us harm.

    --I am of course not an expert in any of the known scriptures, never have been, other than having pure curiosity.  

    So, be gentle  with my 'interpretation' here...


    "Corruptio Optimi Pessima" (Corruption of the best is the worst)

    by zenox on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 03:13:37 PM PST

    •  Detail... (0+ / 0-)

      I see the "promised land" concept as a symbol for "healed state of mind." Without that, there can be no "promised land with no enemies around."

      Even if we are to imagine all of the surrounding enemies disappearing into thin air, the strife within does not allow peace.

      "Corruptio Optimi Pessima" (Corruption of the best is the worst)

      by zenox on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 03:27:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Amelek is alive (perhaps) (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BoogieMama, zenox

    Thanks JLan for the D'Var Torah and the thought that you put into it. It is indeed a good question as to how Agag and all his descendants can be wiped out in II Samuel and yet we meet Haman the Agagite in the book of Esther?!?!

    Unless of course "Amelek" and "Agagite" are to be understood as symbolic expressions meaning "enemies of God's people". In the Christian scripture we encounter "Babylon" and "Babylonian" being used in the same way, in Revelations in particular.

    Taking it even further, what if God's people are not actually supposed to fight with other people at all, either "Agagites in the flesh" or "Agagites in the spirit"? Instead, what if God's people are supposed to identify the "Spirit of Agag" in what some people call the "heavenly realms" and contend with that entity? Chapter 10 of the Book of Daniel, with its references to the "Prince of the Persian kingdom" presents us with some introduction this concept, which the Christian theologian Walter Wink, for one, developed substantially.

    "Our struggle is not with flesh and blood, rather against the principalities and powers of the heavenly realms".

    Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim

  •  I highly recommend that those (0+ / 0-)

    involved with this series of diaries take the time to read The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, particularly his analysis of the Old Testament. I may clear up the confusion.

    •  Are You Sure They Haven't? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Granted, I've never read any of Thomas Paine's writings other than a few excerpts from The Crisis and Common Sense.  The deficiency is mine.

      But it's seemed to me that the contributors to the series on the whole are well-versed (if you'll pardon the pun) in many different interpretations of the Bible.  And each contributor has a slightly different point of view.  Which is why they let a Lutheran like me occasionally throw something in.

      Forgive me if I'm making unwarrented assumptions, but you seem to approach the D'var Torah series as if you're entering a den of Southern Baptist Biblical Literalists.  Not all Jews are Literalists.  Heck, I wouldn't even say that all Jews claim that the Torah is the Inspired Word-O-God.

      I don't think that the folks running this series have ever issued a "Mission Statement" about How We Are To Regard The Torah.  If they did, I suppose it would run something like this:

      "The Torah is a collection of ancient writings which are the foundation of Judaism and which over the centuries have been interpreted in many different ways.  Here is my interpretation of this particular passage."

      Tell you what, 'Troller; why don't you write a Torah diary?  The specific readings for this month can be found here.  Choose a passage and write down something about it; what it reminds you of, what you think it means, what ideas can be drawn from it that you think are good (or bad), what Tom Paine thinks of it, whatever.

      It doesn't have to be long, or even terribly deep.  But unless you want to set about deliberately trying to piss people off, I think you will get a respectful hearing in this group.  And even if you do want to post something incendiary, you might be surprised to learn that there have been rabbis who made the same points.

      "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

      by quarkstomper on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 12:43:22 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  What do you mean, they "let" (0+ / 0-)

        a Lutheran like you throw in a comment? This diary is posted on a public discussion site. They can't throw you off of it. And since this group is using a public site for scriptural lessoning purposes, they should be prepared for critical skepticism and maybe even some "fun poking".   They may or may not get "pissed" at me for my point of view, but it seems you are already pissed at me on their behalf.

        I brought up Thomas Paine because there was discussion about the fact that the writings have holes in them in terms of sequence (basically the texts are all over the place). Paine uses that fact to explain that there is very little about these texts that lends them the exaulted position given to them. People spend much of their lives trying to make sense of something that makes no sense, which I guess could be a definition of the role of theologians.

        I would really suggest you read Age of Reason and then decide if hunkering down for a long and never ending discussion of Old Testament/Torah writings is worth your time. If something can mean anything to anyone and everyone's interpretations are just fine with everyone, and these texts have been explored and explained ad nauseum for a couple thousand year what's the point?

        Isn't time to move on?

        •  Apologies (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          quarkstomper, Navy Vet Terp

          I apologize to everyone for not responding to anything earlier; Shabbat crept up Friday afternoon (coming as it always does, at sundown), and the festival of Purim started this evening.

          Fishtroller01- I'm well aware of what Paine says; I teach Paine, in fact, as part of a unit on the Enlightenment.  He is, of course, entitled to his opinions.  If you're going to emphasize Enlightenment thinking, then you should certainly add Kant and (for a Jewish perspective) Mendelssohn, as they are attempting to argue for the rationality of Christianity and Judaism, respectively.  There's plenty of later stuff that argues against them, but reading Paine in isolation also isn't the best practice.

          The Bible is, at the very least, a fantastic set of writings to study.  If you want to view it as a book of mythology with outdated morals and of minimal value to study, then I hope you would likewise cut out Homer's epics, the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata, and the Aeneid.  You'd also, of course, cut out modern interpretations, including those of the most liberal synagogues and churches, urging people to fulfill the visions of the Prophets for a repaired world.  You might choose to live in a world like that, but I wouldn't.

          these texts have been explored and explained ad nauseum for a couple thousand year
          As long as people find new inspiration and discover new ideas, the studying hasn't been done ad nauseum.
          •  The difference here is that the other texts (0+ / 0-)

            you listed are not treated the same culturally or politically as the bible, the torah or the koran. These texts are not just discussed for philosophical ideas, they are used as sources of unquestioned authority in world dominionism movements, whether it be dominion over lands or over other peoples, or over governments.

            In my view, we need to begin to remove the stamp of "divine authority" over all three of these sets of scriptures and relegate them to the same shelf that Homer's work sits upon- the mythology shelf, and nothing more. No special reverence or status should be afforded to them.  

            As Thomas Jefferson said, "And the day will come when he mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a Virgin Mary, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter..."

        •  A Few Clarifications (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Navy Vet Terp

          I say "Let" because I am poking fun at myself; not because I am grovelling before a Supreme Council of Theocratic Masters.  I am aware that I am a non-Jew and that my own religious beliefs differ from those of Judaism; and that for a gentile like myself to presume to teach Jews what the Books of Moses mean takes a certain amount of -- dare I say it? -- chutzpah.

          And because although everyone is free to comment in a public thread, not everyone is free to post in this group.  I can post my own diaries whenever I like; I can even call them "D'var Torah" diaries and I don't think anyone will mind.  But this particular series is posted under the "Elders of Zion" group, and to be posted in this group must be scheduled for publication by one of the group's administrators.  I know many of the folks here from when they wrote on the Street Prophets site, and I respect them

          As for hunkering down for a long and never-ending discussion; I write about the things that interest me.  Occasionally, maybe about once a month or so, I contribute to the D'var Torah series.  I spend more of my time writing about science fiction in the Readers & Book Lovers group.  (And there are those, perhaps even some athiests, who would say that the Book of Exodus is far more deserving of study than The Skylark of Space).  And I spend time drawing a pulp-era adventure webcomic.  I do these things because they interest me.

          Perhaps a better question might be, is hunkering down and reading a long and never-ending discussion of Old Testament/Torah writings worth your time?

          Or, as you say, is it time to move on?

          "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

          by quarkstomper on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 05:59:50 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I disagree. It is not "chutzpah" to (0+ / 0-)

            give any kind of view of texts that are there for all to read. No one has the secret code to them and no one has the upper hand in interpretation of them.   Just because someone has studied a set of scripts for longer than others does not make that person any more of an authority on them.

            If the Elders of Zion don't want a public discussion of or critique of the texts or or their interpretations of them, I'm sure they would post them somewhere on an exclusively religion based website.  I don't go to those sites and comment, by the way.  That would be like me walking into a church or synagogue to push my atheistic views.  But here on a site like Daily Kos, which is mainly political in nature, I feel no extra sense of respect for the religious opinions/ideas than I do for political ones.

            •  "Be Arrogant; Be Elegant; Be Smart" (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Navy Vet Terp

              It is arrogant of me to assume that I know more about the Torah than people whose lives are steeped in the writings of the Torah, many of whom, unlike me, have made a study of the rabbinical scholars who devoted their lives to interpreting the Torah.

              Nevertheless, I have contributed to this series in the past and will undoubtably continue to do so in the future because I think I might have something interesting to say about the texts; and that interpreting them in the light of my own experiences might bring out aspects that a different reader might not see.

              The folks organizing this series and many of the readers seem to agree with me.  At least I don't seem to have offended anyone.  

              And that is why the Elders of Zion post this series here, in a public place; and are open to contributions from diarists from outside mainstream Judaism like myself.

              So when you say:  "Just because someone has studied a set of scripts for longer than others does not make that person any more of an authority on them."  you ought to know that THEY AGREE WITH YOU!!!

              When I contribute a diary to be published by this group (as opposed to simply commenting on a diary, which as you state, anyone is free to do) I try to keep in mind that I am a guest of the Elders of Zion, and not an Elder myself; and try to be respectful of the group.

              (And a cookie if you recognize the subject line).

              "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

              by quarkstomper on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 11:21:01 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

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