Purim and the Coronavirus – Shabbat Zakhor 5780

Today is Shabbat Zakhor.  We have a special Torah reading and Haftarah for the Shabbat before Purim.  It is the only Torah reading which, according to Jewish law, individuals are required to hear.  It is that important.  It begins, Zakhor.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

Deuteronomy 25:17-18

The Torah is emphatic about the requirement to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.  Punctuating this command are the words lo tishkakh – “Do not forget.”

What is the connection to Purim?  Haman, the wicked villain of the Purim story, is identified in the Megillah as an Aggagite.  That is to say, a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite King whom we will read about in the haftarah.

The story of Purim is set approximately 900 years after the Amalekites attacked our ancestors in the wilderness.  Deuteronomy’s warning was still unfulfilled.  

But the message extends beyond the literal Amalekites.  Amalek can appear in many guises, and has done so throughout history.  

What is the particular quality of Amalek’s wickedness?  The Torah identifies it explicitly.  They went after the weak and famished stragglers on the periphery of the of the nation.  They targeted those least able to defend themselves.

In the story of Purim, the Jews are an obscure, exiled people living in a foreign land.  They have no power or influence in the court.  When Haman plots to murder every last Jew throughout the Empire, he is emulating the modus operandi of his ancestors.  The Jews of Persia are like the famished and weary stragglers in the wilderness.

At the end of the story, Mordechai and Esther send out edicts throughout the Empire, instructing the Jewish people to observe the 14th and 15th days of Adar as annual holidays of celebration.

It is not merely an excuse for a party, however.  There is meaning and purpose behind the festival of Purim.  The story of persecution and deliverance is one that has repeated throughout our history.  There have been countless Haman’s and Amalekites who have targeted the Jewish people.  

But we are a people that does not forget, and this is, in no small part, a primary reason for our survival.  While our calendar has many days of sadness and mourning, we also have days for celebration.  That is what Purim is.  Purim stands in for all of those times in our history when we have been targeted by those stronger and more powerful than us.  It is the most “realistic” book in the Bible.  God is hidden, without a single explicit reference.  Similarly, our experience of reality requires us to look beyond the empirical to find God’s Presence.

I would like to read to you a short article that appeared in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s daily bulletin on March 9, 1945.  It was posted in Gladbach, Germany.

Belated Purim services were held here yesterday in a castle belonging to Dr. Joseph Goebels by front-line troops who were too busy fighting last week to pause for the traditional observances.

Capt. Manual Poliakeff of Baltimore, a Jewish chaplain, carefully arranged the candles over a swastika-bedecked bookcase in Goebbels’ main dining room. Pfc, Arnold Reich of Meadville, Pa. and Corp. Martin Willen of Baltimore assisted the chaplain.

The services were attended by a large crowd which filled the vast room. Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers were in the audience, and the Jews explained to their Christian comrades about Haman and why it was so fitting that Purim services should be held in a castle belonging to Goebbels.

I can only imagine the intensity of emotions that were felt by those who found themselves celebrating Purim in Goebbels mansion.  The message of Purim is that, in a dark and dangerous world, we have to celebrate life whenever we can.  

Israel, despite being an incredibly stressful, high-pressured place to live, has adopted this approach.  It is routinely ranked as being on of the happiest places to live, according to the World Happiness Index.  In 2019, it was ranked 13th, having fallen two places.

It is not what we expect from a country that deals with terrorism, rockets, and regular threats of annihilation from Iran.  But it is also a nation whose citizens know that they have got to keep living, that they cannot dwell only on the bad things.

This year, Purim takes on a different tone as we find ourselves in the midst of an emerging global pandemic.

The Coronavirus is neither Haman, nor the Amalekites.  But like them, it is particularly dangerous to vulnerable populations: the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Like in the Megillah, deliverance will come through the well thought out actions of human beings: doctors, nurses, public health officials, and scientists.  But we also have roles to play.  Before Esther went to see the King, she asked the Jewish people of Shushan to fast and pray with her for three days.  There was an important role for the “non-experts” to play.

Jewish law holds a person accountable for even inadvertent harm caused by our bodies.  I am always responsible for what my body does, even while I am sleeping.

Maimonides codifies it in his law code, the Mishneh Torah.  He says that, as far as liability for causing an injury to another person is concerned, there is no difference if a person strikes someone by hand, injures them by throwing a stone or shooting an arrow, or “spits or sneezes and causes damage with his spittle or mucus while it is being propelled by his power… [A person] is liable for all of them, as if he had caused the damage with his hands.”  (Chovel Umeizik 6:10)

These rules are repeated in the Shulchan Arukh as normative Jewish law.  

Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh were from the 12th and 16th centuries, respectively, so they can be forgiven for not knowing about germs.  It is striking that they conceive of a person causing inadvertent harm through spittle and mucus.  Although for them, the worry is that somebody might slip and injure themself.

We now are aware, of course, that illness can be transmitted through the same bodily fluids.  Extending the principle, we find that we are halakhically obligated to follow precautions of the sort that the CDC and the county health department are recommending.  It is an issue of Jewish law.

Parents, you can tell your kids that “the Rabbi says you have to wash your hands.”

We sent out an email on Thursday in which we asked members of the community to take responsibility for each other in specific ways.  I would like to repeat them now:

  • If you have—or recently had—symptoms of illness, including fever, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, stomach bug, vomiting, or any other sickness, DO NOT come to shul. 
  • If you have an underlying immune condition or chronic heart or lung problem, you should also probably stay away.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after contact with common locations like door handles or railings.
  • If washing your hands is not possible, please make use of the alcohol-based hand sanitizer.  It is not as effective as good hand washing.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • If you need to cough or sneeze, please do so into a disposable tissue. If none is available, sneeze into your elbow. Then go wash your hands.
  • We are on “Elbow Bump Protocol.”  Head nodding is fine.  No hand shaking.  
  • Do not directly kiss the Torah or Mezuzot.
  • If you are in any way involved with food preparation or serving, always wash your hands thoroughly beforehand and use the disposable gloves available in the kitchen.

At Kiddush:

  • Don’t use your hands.  Only use a serving utensil.
  • Please keep an eye on children, and gently remind them not to use their hands.

Most of this seems like common sense, but we tend to get sloppy and lax when we are not paying direct attention.

Our joy on Purim this year is diminished a bit, both because of the extra precautions that we are forced to take, and more importantly by the awareness of those who have died from this disease, those whose lives have been disrupted in profound ways, and those who will continue to get sick.

To the Rabbis of the Talmud, illness was more mysterious than for us.  Humanity had little to no ability to cure illness.  A person who got sick was pretty much in God’s hands.  After the death of a colleague’s child, Reish Lakish offers a series of prayers on behalf of the deceased, the mourners, those who have come to comfort the mourners.  He even offers a prayer on behalf of the entire Jewish people.

Master of the worlds, redeem and save, rescue and deliver Your people, Israel, from the pestilence and from the sword…  and from all types of afflictions that suddenly erupt and come to the world. Before we call You are already responding. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who halts the plague.

Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 8b

We pray for healing for those who are ill and for health and wellness for us, our communities, and all people.

May we all have a happy and healthy Purim.

Yitro: The Anti-Amalekite, Yitro 5776

The Torah can be a confusing book.  Sometimes, the confusion jumps right off the page.  Other times, it only becomes apparent when we start to pay close attention to the details.  But it is the perplexing parts that make our holy book so interesting.  In seeking explanations, we sometimes discover the most profound of God’s lessons for us.

Parashat Yitro is comprised of two major sections.  Chapter eighteen describes Moses’ reunion with his father-in-law Yitro and the establishment of a hierarchical court system.  Chapters nineteen and twenty describe the Israelites’ preparations prior to and receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

But there is a problem.  These events seem to be out of chronological order.  Is this surprising – the notion that the Torah might have been intentionally written out of order?  Nearly two thousand years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud considered the possibility.  (BT Zevachim 116a)

The parashah begins, vayishma Yitro – “Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people…”  (Ex. 18:1)  “What was it, exactly that he heard?” the Talmud asks, adding that whatever it was, it led him to come immediately to the Israelite camp and convert.  As expected, there is a disagreement.  Rabbi Yehoshua claims that he heard about the Israelites’ victory, with God’s help, over the Amalekites, prompting him to come right away.  Rabbi Elazar Hamoda’i disagrees.  He claims that it was the news of God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai that prompted Yitro’s visit.

The first rabbi holds that the story is chronological, and Yitro’s appearance is connected to the preceding battle against Amalek.  The second rabbi holds that the story is out of order, and that Yitro actually arrives some time later, although he does not explain precisely why the text appears this way.

The twelfth century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra describes the numerous inconsistencies in the Torah which leads him to the same conclusion, but he offers a reason why.

First of all, chapter eighteen describes Yitro coming to meet Moses at the Israelite encampment at the base of Mount Sinai, but the Torah does not indicate their arrival there until later, in chapter nineteen.

Two.  As part of the reunion Yitro brings burnt offerings and freewill sacrifices to God, but so far no altar has been built.  That will not happen until chapter twenty four, after the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Three.  On their second day together, Yitro observes Moses sitting in judgment of the people all day long.  They are coming to him to inquire of God and settle their disputes.  When asked, Moses describes what he is doing:  v’hoda’ti et chukei elohim v’et Torotav – “I make known the laws and teachings of God.”  (Ex. 18:16)  The only problem is, the Torah has not been given yet, so what laws and teachings exactly is Moses making known to them?

Four.  In the Book of Numbers, we again read of Yitro spending time in the Israelite camp.  There, it describes how he declines Moses’ request to travel with them and serve as their guide.  Then, he departs in “the second month of the second year after the Exodus.” (Numbers. 10:11)  It would seem that the account of Yitro’s departure in this morning’s parashah describes the same thing, meaning that it took place some time after the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

Further support for this claim appears in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Moses retells the story of the establishment of the judicial system, he describes it immediately before telling how the Israelites set out on their journey from Mt. Sinai after have encamped there for over a year.

Taking all of these inconsistencies into consideration, Ibn Ezra concludes that this morning’s Torah portion is not in chronological order.

But he does not have a problem with that.  According to Ibn Ezra, interrupting the narrative serves an intentional purpose.  At the end of last week’s Torah portion, we read of the evil perpetrated by the Amalekites.  They attacked Israel from the rear, targeting the weak stragglers.  Israel has to go to war.  Through God’s miraculous help, they are victorious.  Afterwards, God announces that God will forever be at war against Amalek.

Chronologically, the Israelites then travel from here to Mt. Sinai, where they prepare to receive God’s revelation.  But first – to us as readers – a point must be made.  The out-of-place story of Yitro makes this point.  Yitro, a Midianite Priest, is juxtaposed to the Amalekites.  Ibn Ezra explains that the Midianites and the Amalekites come from the same place.  They grow up together.  And yet, they develop radically different national characteristics.  Amalek becomes the embodiment of evil, while Midian embodies wisdom and kindness.

Internal biblical evidence supports this.  The Midianites have good relations with the Israelites, as evidenced by several stories that appear elsewhere.  In the Book of Samuel, for example, before King Saul attacks the Amalekites, he first instructs a Midianite tribe called the Kenites to evacuate the war zone because they had shown “kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt.”  (I Sam. 15:6)

This contrast emphasizes that not all non-Israelites are bad.  In fact some of them can be quite good.

This might seem obvious to us.  But remember, we are living in a post-Enlightenment era, in which values of humanism and universal ethics are broadly accepted.  In Ibn Ezra’s time, and in Biblical times, one could not say the same thing.  A person’s group identity was existentially important.  The notion that an individual should be valued on his or her own merits, rather than based on his her membership in a group, is a modern concept.

But there still exists in us much of the pre-modern.  How often do we paint people with broad brushstrokes, making assumptions about others based on their religion, or ethnicity, or birthplace, or where they went to school?  One need only read the paper or watch the news to find our most prominent national figures doing just that.  I suspect that if each of us examined ourselves, we would also find that we are not immune to stereotyping others.

It is significant that, immediately after reading God’s declaration of holy war against Amalek, we encounter Yitro, a non-Jewish priest who gave his daughter in marriage to our greatest prophet.  He is depicted as generous, kind, and wise.  And, he grew up side by side with the Amalekites.  This should serve as an important reminder about the need to check our anger, our suspicions, and our assumptions about others and not allow them to overwhelm us.

After all, our Torah delays the story of God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai in order to tell us about this man: Yitro.