Purim/Pesach quiz time:
Have you ever heard of the 4 parshiyot?
The four parshiyot are special readings from the torah that are taken out of order, and read on four of the 6-7 weeks leading up to Passover, so they overlap with Purim and relate mystically to both holidays…
So a big question is – if we have our regular torah portions, why, why do we have these additions at this time? Isn’t there enough to discuss?
One of my teachers, R. Finley the Elder, posits that the rabbis of Talmudic times established these special readings to prepare us for Passover, on our way through Purim. Preparing us for Passover is about preparing us for — what?
If you believe, as I do, that one way of looking at the Torah is our human attempt to “know the mind of God” – in other words, to find ways to live a godly life, to be imitateo dei, to take our human existence, with all its faults, its messiness, its pitfalls, and work, really work, dig into the muck, to elevate our souls, then this season heading us toward liberation is a gift from our ancestors.
First, let’s look at liberation. It’s not about being free to “have it all.” Buying the most iPads or iPhones or chocolate, or traveling to the most exotic places, or skiing the most mountains.
In the Torah, it was specifically to be able to go and worship – or serve – our God, our way – it was about religious freedom. Liberation has always been about this ability to live our lives as Jews, who follow the teachings of our ancestors, who follow the Torah as mediated by the rabbis in the Talmud. It’s about understanding our role in the world, about loving our neighbor as ourselves, not doing to others that which is hateful to ourselves, protecting the widow, orphan and stranger – all that.
It’s also about moving our soul further along its path, freeing ourselves from the chains that keep us from being our fully present self, who has no personal impediments to being that godly person. And I think that is where these four parshiyot really are important.
Traditionally, come tomorrow morning, we would use one torah to read this week’s torah portion, Tetzevah, all about the priests’ clothing, and then we would use our other Torah to read a special reading at the end.
So the special readings… Last week, had we not had a speaker, we would have dived in to discuss Shabbat Shekalim… (Each of the four readings is specially named, not for the torah portion they come from, but for the reason it is read this week.)
Shekalim? What does that mean? Who knows?
Shekels… money. The half shekel we are commanded to pay to support the community. Each one of us. Because there are membership dues to be part of the community. (This reading actually appears in next week’s torah portion…) so from a very early stage, we believed that paying dues is the responsibility of every Jew in the community. Part of what leads to liberation… because if we are not part of the community, we are alone, and of little use to ourselves or to others. Imagine the discussion we could have had about taxes!
This week is called Shabbat Zachor. Zachor… Remembrance, memory… Shamor v’zachor – you shall keep/observe and remember – from Lecha Dodi… or the 10 commandments. Yizkor is from the same root. Remember.
Do you remember Amalek? What do you remember about him? [Esau’s grandson…]
The reading for Shabbat Zachor is from Deuteronomy 25:17-19:
17Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—18how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19Therefore, when Adonai your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
It refers to an episode about 4 torah portions ago – Beshallach, when, almost as soon as we crossed the Sea of Reeds, Amalek and his people attacked us. They are given the “honor” of being the first nation – of so many to come – to attack us. And they did it in such a cowardly manner — surprise attack on the most vulnerable.
Do you know who is reputed to be a descendant of Amalek?
Haman. (part of the connection to Purim, certainly.)
And in modern times, who was considered at least a spiritual descendant of Amalek?
What does this teach us?
That we have a long history battling downright evil that comes from an offshoot of our family. That there is family business that has not been healed yet.
Are there people in your life who make you crazy? Whom you can’t believe get away with what they get away with? Who seem to cause a lot of harm around them? And they keep getting your goat? People who trigger you? Into a rage? Or large discomfort?
The reason I bring this up is that, until part way through rabbinic school, I always had someone who played that role in my life. My sister, my other sister, Sam’s ex-wife, a teacher, a colleague. Always someone who took my attention, who triggered me. Each one of them had some component that allowed me to feel completely justified in my reaction. At some point, I recognized the pattern, but couldn’t stop it. At another time, it hit me that the person who was triggering me this time had many important lessons to teach me, but indeed the most important one was to recognize this pattern and figure out how it was serving me, and not serving me any more. Probably the biggest lesson in rabbinic school –to look at how my own reactions are really about me and, most important, how they prevent me from being the type of person I want to be. More compassionate, less judgmental, more forgiving of myself and others. Pirke Avot, the teachings of our fathers, in the Mishna, teaches us – who is the wise person? The one who can learn from everyone. Even if it’s – don’t do what the ex-wife did. I think the people who trigger us may indeed be the people who teach us the most about ourselves and what we need to work on. I know it has been true for me, especially the people who represent the unhealed family pain.
Do you recognize yourself in this? Maybe not as passionate, but there?
In a class, someone noted that her husband’s ex-wife was NOT a nice human being, and she was not going to ever become friends with her, etc. I totally get this. But I think the path toward liberation about these Amalek-type people in our lives is to be able to pray that they will come around and lose their evil ways, that they will learn a new path. That we will have compassion for them.
When we can look at our enemies with true compassion, rather than the need to strike out, then we can free ourselves of some of the chains that keep us from our own liberation.
Finally, the other fascinating aspect of the Amalek story – in all its permutations – is that we are supposed to remember to blot out the memory of Amalek. Remember to blot out. What does that mean to you?
To me, it means – remember the lessons from our enemies, but do not dwell on them, do not give them too much power over our lives. Acknowledge them, but only give them the due they deserve.
And so, as we move through this season of Purim into the time of our liberation, I pray that we can acknowledge what keeps us from being the people we want to be, learn from everything and everyone around us, and keep it all in perspective. And with that – I say shabbat shalom!