Zachor – Remember

Purim in the Week of Christchurch

D’var Torah by Rabbi Hannah Dresner
March 16, 2019
9th of Adar II, 5779

My Dvar Torah this morning is driven by the murders in Christchurch, centring on our maftir reading and Purim, a celebration that would feel frightening to me, right now, if I didn’t try to frame it, tame it, perhaps.

Purim has a dark side, and that is its seeming black-and-white nature – Haman the antagonist whose name we blot out, booing him down, year in and year out, some Jews writing his name on the souls of their shoes so that they can stomp on him. 

Yes, we’ve been aggressed against over and over, and yes, I see the correlation between Haman and Amalek, and Inquisitorial Spain, and Hitler, and terror in Modern Israel, indeed the ease with which all the evils ever done us run together in a great, heavy burden of victimhood. I see how “Zachor“Remember” has become our post-Holocaust motto. Surely, victims must clearly and fully recover memory of abuse. That is the first step in healing.

But I fear that today’s maftir, and Purim itself, reinforce a sense of victimization that puts us in danger of becoming aggressive ourselves with a sense of self-righteousness and entitlement to hate back. 

And it’s not just me. In Talmud Megilah, Rabbi Avraham Yosef bar Chama prescribes that, on Purim, we must drink to the point that we can no longer distinguish between the statements: “Arur Haman” – “Cursed be Haman”, and “Baruch Mordechai” – Blessed be Mordechai. Why blur these lines? Because, even early in our rabbinic history, there is concern about the overly definitive nature of our Purim Fairy Tale, so satisfying in its certainty about who and what is good and who and what is evil.

The Megillah is a topsy-turvy tale, after all, wherein nothing is, necessarily, as it seems. Those in political power lose their station in society. In a culture that considers it dangerous for a man’s wife to defy him, a girl quietly rises to control her king. The oppressed gain protection, even become powerful themselves. And in celebration of the Megillah we blur lines between reality and fantasy, dressing in costume, costumes that may reveal something about ourselves, something quite contrary to the natures we publicly project. We embody alter egos with gleeful irreverence, even a bit of the naughty. 

What we read seems so definitive, celebrating light and condemning darkness, but the way we behave on Purim calls clarity and certainty into question. We consciously confuse our identities and choose to lose track of up and down, left and right, good and bad.

These are traditional vehicles for keeping us flexible in our perception, aware that no one and, certainly, no People, is entirely good or bad. We all live in the shades of grey, rising and falling in our holiness. 

Our own Jewish Renewal teacher Rabbi Arthur Waskow reworks the command to blot out the memory of Amalek. The command has three parts. First, “Remember what Amalek did to you.” Second: “When your God brings you safely into the land, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek.” Jews have, historically, taken this to mean that we should disgrace Amalek (and all the Amalekites, like Haman who have done us wrong, obliterating their memory). But we can take this to mean something quite different. 

We can take it to mean that once we have arrived in the Promised Land, in other words, safe, healing, and beginning to prosper, we must stop perseverating on our abuse. We must actively lay that memory to rest, “blot it out” – for if we don’t shift past identifying as victims, we risk becoming abusive ourselves, driven by obsessive fear. 

Our maftir text teaches: “Remember.” “Blot it out.” And finally, ends with the admonition: “Al tishkach!” – “Don’t forget!” What is it we should not forget? We should not forget that just as we could become victims again, if we don’t control our reactivity, we could become abusers.

If we revise our self-perception to acknowledge the degree of our contemporary empowerment, the civil liberties we enjoy, and the degree of our flourishing, we will be better able to help others on the margins. Let’s ground ourselves in our power as we build the world the way we want it to be. There are people and Peoples suffering all around us that need to lean into our health and our strength for support. 

If our repeated victimhood can serve the world, it is not through maintaining the vitality with which we damn our oppressors. Rather, it is in the empathy we derive from having been the stranger and recognizing our relative privilege, harnessing our privilege for good.

It is taught that Yom Kippur is a day k’Purim – “like” Purim because on Yom Kippur the Supernal Judge gets drunk on our prayers, to the point that God cannot distinguish between good and evil, accepting us all in our relative holiness.

May we embrace the kavanah of love for all peoples, lack of certainty in our judgments, and fierceness in defying acts of hatred. V’cein yehi ratzon.