Shabbat Zachor: One nation, united

Parashat Zachor this year read along with the first reading in Leviticus, Parashat Vayikra. It sends a powerful message about Jewish survival and antisemitism.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism יזכור וספירה
יזכור וספירה

This year 5779, as happens in about 85% of leap years (and solely in leap years), Parashat Vayikra coincides with Shabbat Zachor.

Parashat Vayikra opens the Book of Leviticus:

“When He called to Moshe, Hashem spoke to him from the אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, Tent of Meeting saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: A person from you who offers a sacrifice...” And then follow laws of different kinds of sacrifice.

The Torah uses three different terms for the Tabernacle in the desert. The first is מִקְּדָשׁ, Mikdash, from the root קדש meaning “holy”; hence the usual translation “Sanctuary” (a holy place, a shrine).

The second is מִשְׁכַּן, Mishkan, from the root שכן meaning “dwell”; hence the usual translation “Tabernacle” (a dwelling-place; specifically, the place where G-d would cause His Divine Presence to reside).

The third, the name used here in this first verse of Leviticus, is אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, Ohel Mo’ed, meaning “Tent of Meeting”.

The word מוֹעֵד is from the root יעד, approximately “purpose” or “intended direction”; hence the Talmudic-Hebrew cognate וַעַד, “committee”, a group of people who conjoin with each other for a specific purpose.

This is why the Torah refers to a Festival-day as a מוֹעֵד: it is a time when Jews conjoin with each other and with G-d to celebrate His Holy Days. (Hence the standard, if somewhat old-fashioned a stilted English translation of as “a holy convocation”).

Of these three names, מִקְּדָשׁ is by far the least common: the Torah uses it only 15 times (twice in Exodus, eight times in Leviticus, and five times in Numbers).

More usual is the name מִשְׁכַּן, which appears 104 times (58 times in Exodus, only 4 times in Leviticus, and 42 times in Numbers).

And the most common name is אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, which appears 135 times (34 times in Exodus, 43 times in Leviticus, 56 times in Numbers, and twice in Deuteronomy).

So in the Book of Exodus, before the Tabernacle was constructed, as it was still in its planning stages, its most common appellation was מִשְׁכַּן. Only in the Book of Leviticus, when it was already fully constructed and functioning, does the appellation אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד become the most frequent.

I suggest that this teaches us something fundamental about the Mishkan: that unity among Jews, and genuine connexion between the individual Jew and G-d, depends upon a functioning Mishkan, in later generations upon a functioning Holy Temple.

Without the Mishkan, we are a collection of congregations. Only with a functioning Mishkan, in later generations upon a functioning Holy Temple, do we achieve the higher spiritual level of nation, “a Kingdom of Kohanim and a holy Nation” (Exodus 19:6) which is our purpose given by G-d.

Shabbat Zachor

Shabbat Zachor is the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim. The Maftir (the passage which concludes the Torah-reading), instead of being a repetition of the final several verses of the Parashah, is instead three verses, Deuteronomy 25:17-19:

“זָכוֹר, zachor – Remember what Amalek did to you when you were on your way out of Egypt: how he chanced upon you on the way, and he attacked from behind – all the weak ones who were straggling behind you, when you were tired and exhausted, and he did not fear G-d. And so, when Hashem your G-d will give you respite from all your surrounding enemies in the Land which Hashem your G-d gives you as a heritage to inherit – eradicate the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens: You shall not forget!”

This brief paragraph contains three Commandments, two positive and one negative:

1. To remember what Amalek did to us,

2. Not to forget what he did to us, and

3. To exterminate his seed

(following the Sefer Ha-Chinuch, mitzvot 603, 604, and 605; also the Rambam, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, positive mitzvot 188 and 189, negative mitzvot 59; and codified further in Laws of Kings 1:1, 5:5, and 6:4).

This is of course a particularly apposite introduction to Purim: it was Amalek’s descendant Haman who attempted to exterminate us all in the Persian Empire, some 1,000 years after that seemingly-minor desert skirmish.

So lest anyone attempt to challenge the Torah’s morality – “Why this vindictiveness? Why this hatred for an entire nation because of what their ancestors did? Why bear such a grudge for a battle which happened millennia ago?” – Purim comes to teach us the lesson: That seemingly-minor desert skirmish was but a symptom of Amalek’s undying genocidal hatred for us and all that we represent.

It wasn’t a once-only lapse: it was Amalek’s very identity.

The Haftarah (the reading from the Prophets which follows the Torah-reading) for Shabbat Zachor comprises 1 Samuel 15:2-34 [1], recounting the Prophet Samuel’s charge to King Saul, the first King of Israel, to wage war against Amalek.

King Saul indeed obeyed the Prophet’s call – but only partially. Out of distorted mercy and over-exaggerated humility (and maybe also misplaced unity that a king feels for a fellow-king), “Saul and the nation had compassion on Agag [king of Amalek] and on the best of flock and the herd, and on the fatted sheep and lambs, and on everything that was good, and they did not deign to destroy them; but everything that was repulsive and disgusting – that, they destroyed” (1 Samuel 15:9).

The immediate consequence was that G-d told the Prophet Samuel, “I regret having made Saul King, because he turned back from following Me, and My word he did not fulfil” (v. 11). And as a result, King Saul did not merit to bequeath the kingship to his son Jonathan; instead, David became the next King of Israel, and the permanent monarchy, passed down from father to son throughout the generations until the final King, the Mashiach, passed to David and his line.

A longer-term consequence was the entire episode of Purim: King Saul spared Agag – and some five-and-a-half centuries later in Persia, Agag’s descendent Haman again attempted to exterminate all the Jews, and it fell to King Saul’s descendent Mordechai to confront Haman and save the Jews.

The Maftir and Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor are indeed the perfect introduction to Purim.

Purim celebrates our deliverance from Haman’s decree of genocide in Persia, in exile, in a time when and a place where we had no Holy Temple. And it is no coincidence that Haman described us as “one nation, scattered and dispersed among the nations in all the provinces of your kingdom” (Esther 3:8).

Without any national unity, we were inevitably vulnerable. And how did Queen Esther garner the strength and courage to risk her very life to fight for her nation and win?

– “Go, gather all the Jews who are in Shushan, and fast for me; don’t eat and don’t drink for three days, night and day” (Esther 4:16).

Jewish unity, even though in prayer without the Holy Temple, could avert the evil decree.

And herein lies the central lesson of the אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, of Amalek’s attack on us, of Purim.

As Mordechai told his cousin Esther when she demurred, unsure whether or not to plead with her husband King Achashverosh for her nation’s very survival:

“Don’t imagine escaping from the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews; because even if you keep silent at this time, salvation and deliverance will arise for the Jews from some other place – while you and your father’s house will be destroyed!” (Esther 4:14).

Don’t ever imagine that when “they” (whoever “they” may be, at any time and in any place”) say “Death to the Jews”, that they don’t mean you and that you can escape.

When Amalek attacked us, whom did he attack? – Not the Torah-scholars, not the leaders: “Amalek came...and he took and killed the people of the Tribe of Dan, whom the Cloud [of Glory] did not protect because of the idolatry among them” (Targum Yonatan, Exodus 17:8)

Don’t think that Amalek hates only religious Jews, and that by becoming secular you can escape his murderous, genocidal hatred. You can’t. Even if you deny your Jewishness, Amalek will still hunt you down and kill you.

No doubt the Jews of Persia, integrated and assimilated into Persian society, felt themselves safe from Haman’s murderous, genocidal hatred. “When he says ‘the Jews’, he means Mordechai and other Jewish religious extremists. He doesn’t mean us, loyal Persian subjects.”

Oh no? Think again. Even if you’re married to the King of Persia, he means you, too. Don’t think that when Haman says “the Jews”, he means only the “bad” Jews. He means the “good” Jews as well. He means you.

When the Communists in the Soviet Union declared their antipathy to Jews, they meant us all. The “good” Jews, the Communist Jews, those who had led the Communist Revolution, those who swore fealty to Communism and the Red Star and to Stalin y”sh personally – Stalin meant them, too. Those Jews who fought for Communism, bled for Communism, betrayed their own fellow-Jews for Communism – they ended up with bullets in their skulls in the Lubyanka no less than the “reactionary” Jews who remained devout.

When the Nazis and Hitler y”sh declared that “die Juden sind unsere Unglück” (“the‎‎‏ Jews are our misfortune”), when they screamed “Juden Raus!” (“Jews out”), there were Jews in the Reich who comforted themselves with the delusion: They don’t mean us, loyal Germans who fought and bled for the Fatherland in the World War. They mean the Ostjuden – the Jews from the East, Polish Jews, the newcomers to our country, those who still wear kaftans and long beards, and speak Yiddish rather than German.

No. The Nazis meant EVERY Jew. Not just the religious, not just the Ostjuden. They slaughtered all those who remained in the Third Reich – loyal German Jews and Polish Jews equally.

When – closer to our own time – Arab terrorists in Israel scream “itbach al-Yahud” (“slaughter the Jews”), they mean ALL of us. Not just the “bad” Jews, not just the “settlers” – all.

Quarter-of-a-century ago, when the Israeli Government embarked upon the Oslo death process, signing the murder accords with El Fatah (the PLO), the Left in Israel were convinced that when Yasser Arafat y”sh spoke of massacring the Jews, he meant only the “bad” Jews, the “settlers” who live on the “wrong” side of the Green Line.

No he didn’t.

He sent his suicide terrorists to murder Jews in the hundreds in Afula and Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan and Netanya. The genocidal Jew-hater who screams “idfess al-Yahud la-al-bahr!” (“drive the Jews into the sea!”) means the Jews of Tel Aviv – the left-wing Jews who wish to give up land for peace and coexistence with the Arabs – no less than he means those who live in Beit El and Hevron and Yitzhar.

Indeed Purim changed forever 23 years ago, when the day before Purim of 5756 (1996), Abd el-Rahim Is’hak y”sh from Ramallah blew himself apart in Disengoff Centre in the heart of Tel Aviv, murdering 13 people and injuring another 130.

It mattered not to him, or to the Hamas or the Islamic Jihad or El Fatah, that the good folks of Tel Aviv were the ones most likely to have supported the Oslo death process. No doubt they felt secure, the terrorist didn’t mean them any harm, they only go after the “bad” Jews.

But no, no they don’t. “Slaughter the Jews” means “slaughter the Jews” – Left or Right, religious or secular.

History, from Amalek to our own day, from the Tanach to tomorrow’s newspapers, shows this with absolute clarity. When our enemies decide to exterminate us, they mean all of us. No exceptions. Purim remains Purim and Haman remains Haman, whether in Persia or the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany or Israel.

And the אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, with which the Book of Leviticus and this week’s parashah begin, tell us of our path to victory over evil.

The אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, the Tent of Meeting, is where we all, as a nation, meet with each other and with G-d. It is the אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד that unifies us. Every Jew has a share in the אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד – and later in the Holy Temple.


[1] Thus the Ashkenazi custom. Sefaradi custom begins one verse earlier, 1 Samuel 15:1-34.