There has been a lot of violence in Israel this past week. As we mark Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, it is essential not to get carried away in what look like our tradition's calls for retributive violence. Rather, we must remember what it means to be holy, to learn from our experience as victims and to promote peace whenever we can.
Remembering to be Holy before God
The Shabbat before Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor. Zachor means “remember,” and as we prepare to hear the annual reading of the Megillah, our attention is drawn to the ancient enemy of the Jews, the nation of Amalek. “Remember what Amalek did to you,” we read in Deuteronomy, “How they struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were weary and faint” (25:17-18, slightly amended). The haftarah for this Shabbat retells the story of Saul, first king of Israel, who was given the opportunity and the charge to wipe out the entire nation of Amalek. He failed to do so, sparing their king, Agag. The prophet Samuel punished Saul by stripping him of his kingship, but Agag survived and would become the scion of another enemy of the Jews, the villain of the Purim story, Haman.
Shabbat Zachor is scary. We are told not only to remember the oppressors who would have destroyed us but also to rue the day our ancestors failed to wipe them out completely. We are pushed to remember, though we know the stories to be more mythic than historical, what they did to us and what we wish we had done to them.
This isn’t our tradition’s only voice of violence turned against the enemies of the Jews. The familiar, though mournful, Psalm 137 is another. It opens
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion (v. 1, JPS)
The tellers of the sad memory recall their humiliation, ripped away from their land of promise and scorned and mocked by the Babylonians who had conquered them. They turn to God with remonstration: זְכֹר יְהֹוָה ... אֵת יוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָם, “Remember, O Eternal, the Day of Jerusalem[’s fall]” (v. 7). And then they turn, rhetorically, on their captors—and before I read, be prepared for an image of intense violence:
Fair Babylon, you predator,
a blessing on the one who repays you in kind
what you have inflicted on us;
a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks (vv. 8-9, JPS).
The brutality of Israel’s death wish against the Babylonians is stomach-churning. No wonder the popular folk song leaves that part out! But we need not censor the poem in our quest to understand it. In her new book on the poetry of the Hebrew Bible, Princeton Theological Seminary professor Elaine James seeks to explain the context for the psalm’s vivid language. She points out that this horrific trope “is not the language of victors in celebration, it is the language of victims in despair.” The speakers of the poem imagine addressing their oppressors, and the same power can be alluring to readers across the ages who see themselves in similar situations. Professor James writes: “One of the powerful potentials of Psalm 137 is to offer a voice to those in fear of or victimized by state-sponsored violence.” This may explain where such intense bloodlust comes from, though I suspect that the inclusion in the Bible of this revenge fantasy still troubles us.
And it should trouble us. The call to violence is disturbing enough when voiced by the powerless oppressed. But when it is taken up by powerful oppressors, the consequences can be devastating. Twenty-nine years ago, Baruch Goldstein, an American medical doctor, walked into a mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron and opened fire on the 800 people who were offering their Ramadan prayers. He wounded 125 men and killed 29 more until he was subdued and killed by being hit on the head by a fire extinguisher. The day of the massacre? Purim, 1994. Goldstein embodied the violence of Shabbat Zachor, empowered by hatred and rage.
The violence that Shabbat Zachor celebrates remains for some in our extended Jewish family not only a fantasy but an aspiration. The grave of Baruch Goldstein is a pilgrimage site for Israeli extremists and continues to be maintained in the cemetery of Kiryat Arba. This is the place that Israeli politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who used to share a political party with Baruch Goldstein, went on a first date with his wife. And until Ben-Gvir ran for public office, a portrait of the mass murderer hung in his home.
This is the man—Itamar Ben-Gvir—whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed the chief of Israeli police. This past Sunday, two Jewish brothers were murdered in a terrorist attack in the West Bank. In frenzied retaliation, hundreds of Israeli settlers responded by torching 30 Palestinian homes and lighting nearly 100 cars on fire. In the words of Rabbi Ethan Tucker: “Pausing to daven Maariv as the flames rose from the village, these young men, wearing their kippot and tzitzit, may have felt they were fulfilling the Biblical command we read about this week: taking revenge on our enemies. They may have felt triumphant echoes of the megillah–‘וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם כִּרְצוֹנָם–the Jews dealing with their enemies as they see fit’ (Esther 9:5).” But the local commander of the Israeli military called the attack what it was: a pogrom. Itamar Ben-Gvir, in contrast, merely asked the community not to resort to vigilante violence by saying, “The government of Israel, the State of Israel, the IDF, the security forces – they are the ones who have to crush our enemies.”
Ironically, though not surprisingly, Ben-Gvir has shown no such patience for participants in protests that have erupted and escalated all over the country this week. The protests express the rage of many Israelis against an extremist government that seems utterly devoted to a violent Jewish nationalism bent on authoritarian control not only of the occupied territories but also of the mainly Jewish areas of the rest of Israel. Most specifically, the demonstrations oppose the right-wing government’s attempts to strip the judiciary of its most important powers. As if seeking to prove the protestors’ point, Ben-Gvir has instructed the police under his command to show “zero tolerance toward anarchists.” So far, 23 arrests have been made; meanwhile, there have been 6 arrests among the settlers who rioted in the West Bank.
Itamar Ben-Gvir and his allies, stretching all the way back to Baruch Goldstein, claim the authority of Jewish tradition. The governing coalition, which includes ultra-orthodox parties, disregards modern notions such as human rights and civil law, narrowing their view of Judaism into a spectrum just wide enough to fit themselves in and nobody else. But such chauvinism is not only a perversion of the wide and diverse array of Jewish expressions and interpretations that should be celebrated in the Jewish state; it’s also extremely dangerous.
When we view, even from afar, the political and social strife taking place in Israel, we can’t pretend that this is only a secular political battle. The fight for Israeli democracy and peace within its borders is also a fight over the meaning of Judaism itself. Yes, there are elements of our tradition such as Shabbat Zachor and Psalm 137 that articulate a deep-seated urge for violence; we cannot say that Judaism is a religion only of peace. But we can insist that peace be the loudest of our voices and the one that can never be silenced by those who would pervert our tradition to their own unjust and self-serving aims.
Voices in Israel that articulate a progressive view of Jewish values, voices that in many ways emerge from and reflect the values of our own Reform movement—these are the voices that must be lifted up. For instance, Gilad Kariv, a member of Knesset from the Labor party and a Reform rabbi ordained by the Hebrew Union College, insists, “We are here … to crush this false thought that Judaism in Israel belongs to the right.” The leadership of Rabbi Kariv, of the Israeli Religious Action Center, and of so many people of all backgrounds committed to thoughtful, peace-oriented, progressive and pluralistic Jewish life are essential to combating the insidious usurpation of our tradition by those whose primary drive is the attainment of power.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the most important garments worn by the priests in the wilderness. Aaron is instructed to wear shoulder-pads and a breast-piece, each of which bears the names of all twelve of Israel’s tribes (Ex. 28:11-12, 29). Why? לְזִכָּרֹן לִפְנֵי־יְהֹוָה תָּמִיד, “For continual remembrance before the Eternal” (Ex. 28:29). Who requires this remembrance? Is it the priest? The populace? According to the commentator Rashbam, it is God who needs to be reminded of the good deeds of our people.
It’s not hard to apply this lesson in our own day and age. We are a diverse people, with many more than twelve tribes. And yet, something holds us together. When we stand together before the Creator of all, praying that God see the best in us, this is the remembrance we bring to life on Shabbat Zachor. Our tradition need not veer us into violence or vengeance; rather, we strive to stand upright before God, bearing the inscription—as does the high priest in this week’s parashah—of קֹדֶשׁ לַיהֹוָה, “Holy to the Eternal” (Ex. 28:36).
May this be the remembrance of our Shabbat Zachor, a remembrance of the vitality of diversity, of the need to hold together when hatred threatens to tear us apart, and of our tradition’s ancient struggle to overcome the love of power with the power of love. May we be, in this way, holy to our God. May this be a Purim of peace.
 An Invitation to Biblical Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2022), p. 165.
 Ibid. 160.
 See Rashbam’s comment to Ex. 28:36:
קדש לה' - על האפוד ועל החשן היו שמות בני ישראל לזכרון, שכפר הקב"ה על עון הקדשים שיקדישו בני ישראל הכתובים למטה, מן הציץ באבני האפוד והחשן. קדש לה' - כלומר, הקב"ה מרצה עון הקדשים.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”