Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, February 23, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
I know that people think I get too political in my sermons but as they say “You can’t make this stuff up”. Today is Shabbat Zachor, it is the Shabbat that comes right before Purim and the word Zachor comes from the special verses in the Torah we read today: Zachor et asher asah Lekha Amalek. Remember what Amalek did to you. We remember the cruel and vicious attack of Amalek and his tribe just after Israel left Egypt on this Shabbat because Haman the failed genocidal enemy in the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek.
This week at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, Wayne LaPierre the long time leader of the supposedly non partisan gun lobby used the tragedy in Parkland FL and the remarkably passionate and vibrant protest by the surviving students of the massacre not to support sane gun legislation that the majority of gun owners in this country support but to attack Democrats and liberals for manipulating these deaths in order to take away American liberty. And he did so by invoking individuals he insisted are the enemies of the NRA and America who would destroy our freedoms and persist in the “socialist corruption of our government: Karl Marx, Bernie Sanders, Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor George Soros, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Charles Schumer of New York as one of the Democrats who are "liars to the core." He also linked the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS to the great community organizer Saul Alinsky: "As usual the opportunists wasted not one second to exploit tragedy for political gain - Saul Alinsky would have been proud."
Now what do all these individuals have in common? Let me think, they are all men. No. They are all white. No. They all have an ‘s’ in their name. No. Oh, they all happen to be Jews.
That LaPierre could get away with highlighting those individuals singled out for hatred as enemies of America as exclusively Jews without being questioned for his antisemitic dog whistling is due to the new climate we live in.
Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States saw a massive spike of 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017, according to new data compiled by the Anti-Defamation League. The president infamously told America that among the Neo Nazis and white supremacists shouting antisemitic slogans and waving swastikas were good people. And of course white supremacists, like David Duke, have let all of us know that Donald Trump is their president who speaks for them.
But on this Shabbat Zachor it is not only in America where antisemitic tropes have increased. Around the world, right wing nationalists use antisemitism to burnish their nationalist credentials.
Two weeks ago, Poland’s right-wing government passed a law criminalizing mentioning the complicity of “of the Polish nation” in the crimes of the Holocaust. It is thus illegal to imply that Poland took part in any Nazi atrocities in WWII. This caused a world-wide outcry. U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said the law would affect “freedom of speech and academic inquiry.” Israel’s Education Minister, Naftaly Bennet, canceled a visit to Poland saying, “The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it.” The law was criticized by the International Auschwitz Council and by dozens of Polish historians. The truth is, more than 70 years after the Holocaust, most European countries – unlike Germany – have refused to acknowledge their complicity in the war against the Jews and the murder of 6 million of our people. Poland now would make it illegal to even talk about!
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg notes that Poland and its citizens connection to the holocaust is complicated:
- Referring to the concentration camps as “Polish death camps” is wrong. The Poles were not responsible for the concentration camps being built in Poland. The Germans built them in Poland because that is where most of the Jews were.
- The largest amount of non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust came from Poland.
- But the largest amount of Jews killed in any country was in Poland.
- Many of those killed were murdered by Poles, not Germans.
- Poland lost between two and three million of its citizens during WWII. But there were also three million Polish Jews who were killed and they, too, were also citizens.
- One thing more. Menachem Begin once described Poland as being a place where “children are raised on their mother’s milk of antisemitism.” Those of you who remember Rose and Mayer Zar know that they would insist that the Poles were only too happy to do the bidding of the Nazis and murder Jews.
In a newly published book entitled, Why: Explaining the Holocaust, by Peter Hayes, he writes in the chapter “The Case of Poland,”: “Probably no subset of issues related to the behavior of non-Jewish populations during the Holocaust is touchier than those surrounding what happened in Poland.” Nevertheless rather than take the opportunity for self introspection, the government and the masses in Poland would rather not talk about it.
This morning’s special reading demands of us to Zachor al Tishkach – Remember, do not forget. Why tell us this twice? Is not ‘remembering’ the same as ‘not forgetting’? Rabbi Israel Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and the youngest survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp and a neighbor of Mayer Zar, pointed out that according to the midrash in Sifrei, “not to forget” refers to what takes place in one’s heart, while zachor – “remember” – refers to active measures one takes to remind others. Says Rabbi Lau, “The actions that I took to fulfill the zachor – remembering – was to tell the story.” Zachor is active and out focused, al tishkach, don’t forget is an personal and in focused.
However the medieval moralist Rabbenu Bahya offered a different distinction. He notes the juxtaposition of the laws of just and unjust weights that a merchant might use that come just before the reminder of Amalek’s cruelty. He says the placing of the verses in this order is intentional to teach a lesson. For if you cheat in business regarding measures, know to be wary of the increase in strength of your enemies. By linking the contexts, the message is that God allows one’s enemy to dominate all who act in corrupt fashion. Straight forward acts of injustice endanger the entire fabric of society, which is far more fragile than it may look.
The point of Rabbenu Bahya is not to blame those who suffer oppression by suggesting they deserve it. Rather his point is that when one lives in a society that permits corruption, cheating and exploitation there are consequences. The rot begins from within and eventually the entire structure is weakened. And whom does the Torah inform us Amalek preyed upon – the weak, the famished and the weary.
In our nation today when Wells Fargo, the bank that was fined $185 million in 2016 for issuing millions of fake credit card accounts and caught overcharging clients, becomes the largest beneficiary of the Congress’ recent tax bill to the tune of some 20 billion dollars; when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which has assisted 29 million individual consumers helping them receive almost 12 billion dollars in due relief, responding to over 1 million consumer complaints, is gutted, the founding director pushed out and replaced by Mick Mulvaney, who calls the agency a joke and wants it to disappear, we have reason to fear the dynamic suggested by Rabbenu Bahya.
And it is not only here. In Israel today thousands of poor African refugees are threatened with expulsion and deportation. Israel as all sovereign nations have a right to maintain a cultural and national integrity. But we Jews also know the fear and danger of expulsion. And Israel imports many foreign workers already, forcibly exiling the African migrants is cruel and wrong.
Our Torah portion’s command of Zachor/al Tishkach thus can also teach a different lesson. Zachor – Remember. Remember your past and what others did to you lest you become like your persecutors. And al Tishkach – Don’t forget. Don’t forget your responsibilities to others, to the ethical teachings of Torah, and to working to make God’s world fair and equitable.