Shabbat Zachor precedes our celebration of Purim, challenging us to remember the ambush of Amalek because Haman, the villain of the Megillah, is a descendant.
Beginning with the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Adar, we make our way toward Pesach by designating four Shabbatot of preparation; on each Shabbat we read designated passages from a second scroll in addition to the portion of the week.
The first of these comes this week with Shabbat Zachor. We add to our reading of parashat Tzav three verses from Deuteronomy 25 that challenge us to “remember (zachor) what Amalek did to you on your journey … he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” Every year, this reading precedes our celebration of Purim, for Haman, the villain of the Megillah, is a descendant of Amalek.
Throughout the ages, our sages and teachers have wrestled with these words that direct us to remember the past so that we will never again be ambushed, and to “blot out the memory” of all those who, throughout history, have persecuted or attempted to enslave our Jewish people. The accompanying Haftarah from 1 Samuel underscores the imperative of destroying every Amalekite soul, “both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
How does reading these texts prepare us for celebrating Purim? And why do the rabbis tell us that Yom Kippur should be understood as Yom ki-Purim, a day “like” or “compared to” Purim?
Reading Megillat Esther, we recall the story of a king whose inability to manage his personal affairs makes us question his ability to manage the affairs of his kingdom. We meet Mordechai, exiled from Jerusalem, who advises his ward, Esther, not to reveal her Jewishness as she enters the king’s harem. The plot thickens as Haman, elevated to become the king’s deputy, seeks “to exterminate all the Jews throughout the whole kingdom.”
When Esther learns that her people are condemned to die, she devises a plan to reverse the decree. A subplot brings Haman and Mordechai together in a role reversal, and Haman’s wife, Zeresh, portends her husband’s doom. The Megillah concludes with a royal declaration that not only annuls the edict against the Jews, but gives the Jews permission “to exterminate, to slay and cause to perish all the forces of the people and the provinces that might attack them, their little ones and their women, and to plunder their possessions.” And the Jews of Shushan do just that.
Purim is celebrated with antics, parodies and pushing, if not crossing, accepted boundaries of dress and consumption, and is balanced by Yom Kippur, when we abstain from eating and drinking and dress modestly. Purim, our day of noise, serves as a counterpart to Yom Kippur, a day of reflection and contemplation.
Purim, when we remember bloody, vengeful conflicts, is tempered by Yom Kippur, a day of prayers for peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. Our rabbis counsel that Purim and Yom Kippur both lead us to consider the power of honoring or abusing our bodies — and the bodies of others — and how those behaviors reflect our care for our souls, and our responsibility to others.
Perhaps this is the essence of Shabbat Zachor: the cycle of the Jewish year provides opportunities to acknowledge our complex and varied needs and hungers. May we honor the challenges and delights of Purim with clarity, intention and joy. Chag Purim Sameach!
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected]