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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Parashat Tetzaveh - the Hafatra

Parashat Tetzaveh – the Haftara
1Samuel 15:2 – 15:34
Reading date: 7th March 2009 – 11th Adar 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
Thus said the Lord of Hosts: 'I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made upon them on the road on their way up from Egypt. I Samuel 15:2

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. That's why it's called the 'present.'
Parashat Tetzaveh continues with the description of the furnishings of the Tabernacle (Mishkan): the olive oil for the eternal lamp, the garments for Aaron, the High Priest, and the consecration ceremony for the priests. The portion concludes with a description of the incense altar. The regularly scheduled Haftara, taken from Ezekiel, (40: 10-27), describes the Temple and the details of its consecration.

Instead of Ezekiel, the Haftara for this specially named Shabbat Zachor is taken from the book of Samuel (15:1-34). (Ashkenazim begin on verse 2.) This haftara does not connect to the weekly Torah reading, but to the calendar instead. This is the Shabbat before Purim, and a special Maftir (concluding) portion read from a second scroll describes the Amalekite's attack on the Israelites (Deut. 25:17-19). The Haftara describes Saul's battle with Agag, king of the Amalekites, retaliation for their cowardly attack on the Israelites (also related in Exodus 17:8ff). Both Maftir and Haftara connect to Purim because the villain of the Purim story, Haman, is descended from Agag. The command to 'blot out the memory of Amalek' is in fact the origin of the custom of 'drowning out Haman's name' with graggers (noisemakers). Just as Haman is seen as a descendant of Agag, so too is Mordechai's lineage traced back to the line of Saul's father (son of Kish).

Saul, the first king of Israel, appointed by the prophet Samuel engages in battle with the Amalekites. YHVH commands Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites, but he spares the king and the best sheep and oxen. When confronted by Samuel, Saul tries to rationalize his actions, but because he has not obeyed YHVH, YHVH rejects Saul as king.

Shabbat Zachor: The Shabbat of Memory. The Jewish people have a prodigious memory. The Psalmist vows to remember Jerusalem, "If I forget you O Jerusalem..." and we promise to keep alive the memories of those who perished in the Holocaust. Jews sustain the memory of loved ones through the traditions of Yizkor (literally: he will remember) and Yahrzeit. The Torah is always telling us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. But what should we remember? Is it healthy to always have such a good memory?

A few months ago, we learned about the curious mitzvah of ‘Shikh'khah’ (the forgotten sheaf) that we cannot do with ‘kavannah’ (intent). Indeed, we can only fulfill it when we forget to perform it! Here, we encounter a similar scenario: a command to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Here we are being commanded to forget! But the Torah begins the command with the word: Remember! How is that possible?

Memory is generally a good thing, and any of us with aging parents (and even ourselves- where did I put those keys?) can identify with the hardships of impaired memory. We are made of our memories. When a loved one has serious memory loss, we worry that they will even lose their sense of 'self.' In the movie Fifty First Dates, we meet '10 second Tom.' Like goldfish, imagine being trapped in a world of 10 second durations (Say, I don't remember seeing that castle there before). It's no joke.

On the other hand, memory can be a burden. We cannot remember (re-feel) the actual pain, although we can remember that we experienced it. Holocaust survivors who still wake up in the middle of the night screaming suffer from such memories. After a negative experience, we can become trapped in memory and pain. There is a gift in being able to wake up each day as if it were our first. No baggage. No leftover hurt from the previous day's fight. We need to learn from the past, but not be stuck in it. We say, 'Forgive and forget,' because a person cannot forget until they forgive. But the other way around might be true as well. We can't truly and completely forgive until we're ready or able to forget. If you still remember the incident and the hurt, how can you forgive? Maybe there are times and things we need to forget.

This week's command to remember to forget teaches that we must find a balance between memory and moving forward. Judaism has found a way to celebrate history and has turned memory into an art form. Yes, we remember the tyrannical Haman with parody, drink and masquerade. We retell the story and celebrate our survival with a festive meal, (even a little too much) drinking , and gifts to friends and neighbors and tzedakah to the poor.

What are we to remember? What are we to forget? The tension between memory and forgetting teaches an important lesson. The other day I heard someone say: "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. That's why it's called the 'present.' "

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach!

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