March 9, 2012

Before Purim, on this Shabbat Zackhor (remembrance,) we are directed to recall our nemesis and charged to “blot out the memory of Amalek.”  The special Maftir portion minces no words.  It says “Do not forget!”  To that stance or proposition, Elie Wiesel stated it best when asked, “Do you hate your oppressors?”  His response was “to hate would be to reduce myself”.

We read in Ecclesiastes 9:8, “your clothes shall always be white, and oil never lack on your head.”  This verse has been interpreted in various ways. In the Talmud Shabbat 153a Rabbi Eliezer suggests that it proves a person should repent one day before death.  How does one know when that will be?  Repent every day—then your clothes always be white.  Rashi explains that “your soul should be pure and clean”.  Perhaps there is an allusion here to the tachrichim, the traditional simple white burial garments.

In his commentary to our parshah Tetzaveh, the Malbim, Rabbi Meïr-Leibush ben Jehiel-Michel Weiser from 19th century Russia, says that the “clothes” refer not to the soul itself but to the garments worn by the soul, namely one’s midot (values).  The concept here is that while the bigdei kehunah described in our parshah are designated as physical garments for the priests in their service, in fact every soul wears “garments” that can be purified or sullied. We may not wear the white linen uniforms of the kohanim, but we must attend to the purity of our spiritual garments—our moral qualities and thoughts.

Erev Shabbat is a time to purify oneself.  As many of you know, Lauren and I lived in Israelfor an entire year overseeing the staff of a gap-year program for post-high school students.  The teenagers consisted of young adults from all over the country and from every denominational stripe imaginable.  We lived in the shadow of the OldCityand would escort our group occasionally to the Kotel on Shabbat.  No matter where they came from (geographically or spiritually), every one of them quickly became imbued with a unique glow as we approached the Kotel.  Then and now, it is about purifying ourselves, putting on garments of beautiful midot, directing our thoughts to kedushah, holiness, and kindling the flame of Torah so that we become like a menorah—a soul on fire.

My first year in college, I had a brief time of estrangement from the mitzvot.  I went to teacher after teacher asking why he or she was shomeir mitzvot. None of their answers worked for me, not even that of one rabbi who said, “You have to enter the fire to feel its power.”  The anti-intellectualism of the reply annoyed me.  Yet it also stayed with me—there is after all something satisfying about visualizing oneself as a kohen in the mikdash, cleansing, purifying, releasing and seeking—then adding incense to the altar—that turned out to be more powerful than even the most intellectual of answers.

Even so, I would not want to be so quick to abandon intellectual discernment in favor of raw emotion.  Not all emotions are pure, and not all bring us closer to God.  The emotions of Zakhor, remembrance—of retribution and blood debt—are not the Torah that I wish to embrace.  I recall on Shabbat Zakhor some 15 years ago when a man named Baruch Goldstein entered the cave of the Patriarchs inHebronand massacred a room full of praying Muslims. That Shabbat I leveled an accusatory finger at my own young soul—do you harbor such violent hatred?  Do you thrill to this blood lust?

For me, Zakhor and Purim have become a tale of the horrors unleashed by unrestrained passion. It was the ignorant anger at being “dissed” that animated Ahashveros, the same anger that incited Haman, and childish anger that even enters our own souls as we try to blot out Haman’s name.  If it were pure anger, we wouldn’t get consumed trying to achieve it.  Vengeance is a powerful emotion to consider—even to discover in one’s soul—but after finding it we need to let it go.

I suggest that we remember this, the distortions that anger wreaks on our souls, and that we purify ourselves, even on this Shabbat.  Especially on the Shabbat of Zakhor, let us consider the garments of our souls—our midot—and let us release the shmutz, becoming pure as we are meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham