This week is Shabbat Zachor — literally, the “Shabbat of remembrance.” This shabbat before Purim is when we remember Amalek, who was a merciless enemy of the Jews in the Torah.
When the Amalekites attack the Jews, they do so from the rear of the camp in order to take the children and aged first (Deuteronomy 25:18). Rabbi Joseph Telushkin describes the nation of Amalek as the ancient equivalent of the Nazis.
By remembering Amalek this Shabbat, we are by extension remembering Haman, who, of course, plotted to destroy the Jewish people. In the remembering, we are commanded to eradicate such hate from the world.
I grew up as a part of a generation that did not spend a lot time experiencing anti-Semitism. We spent a lot of time remembering it, but not experiencing it.
I remember nightly programs at Camp Swig when we would dress up in our darkest clothes to camouflage ourselves and hide (often in the bushes) from our counselors, who had dressed up like the Gestapo.
Yes, in the mountains above Saratoga, we would harken back to Germany in the ’30s and ’40s to remember the existential anti-Semitism our ancestors experienced. It seemed so far away, and our counselors worked as hard as they could to bring a visceral sense of anti-Semitism to our safe, sheltered Northern California world.
How else might we understand the feeling of being systematically hated and discriminated against just because we were Jews?
Indeed, the comfort of being a Jew in America with no experience of anti-Semitism seemed to grow over time. I remember the 2000 presidential election when Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as his running mate. The conversation among American Jews was along the lines of: “Is it good or bad for us to have a Jew in the White House? What are they going to think of us?”
And by 2016, both presidential candidates had a Jewish grandchild with little to no discussion among the Jewish community of the impact.
We Jews felt accepted as Americans first — totally accepted and integrated into the country’s landscape.
Jon Stewart would make nightly references to being Jewish; Elena Kagan would joke at her Supreme Court nomination hearing that, like all other good Jews, she spent Christmas at a Chinese restaurant.
But being a Jew in 2019 feels incredibly different than it did just three years ago. I no longer have to think back to the Gestapo in Europe or Haman in Persia … or Amalek in the desert with Moses.
In the two largest national Jewish communities outside of Israel, there has been a steep increase in anti-Semitism. The United States has seen a 60 percent increase in anti-Semitism, and France has announced a surge of 74 percent after two years of decrease.
This is not the first time in our history when Jews who were deeply integrated into society, who had power and connections, realized that anti-Semitism was not just something that existed in memory.
This week we read in the fourth chapter of the Book of Esther that the government had acquiesced to the anti-Semites’ demands by ordering the extermination of all Jews. Esther was shocked that, even though Jews were so deeply integrated into society, their government had created a profoundly discriminatory edict.
Esther comes to realize that hiding and doing nothing was not going to save her or anyone else. God from above was not going to intervene and save her or her people — the only way to survive would be to rise up and fully embrace who she was as a Jew (for the first time in her life). It was only when she stood and claimed her heritage as a Persian Jew, rather than as a Jewish Persian, that the king truly saw her.
Assimilation has never saved us. It has only led to our destruction. Hiding and being quiet does not work. Being silent and small will only get you blown over by the winds of hate. Being loud and authentic firmly roots you in the earth, like an ancient tree that can withstand the fiercest winds.
This Shabbat Zachor is about remembering not only the Amaleks of our past, but also the bold leadership of Esther. May this embolden us to embrace our Jewishness in addressing the rising tide of anti-Semitism in our time.