By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
In addition to the weekly portion, a second text will be read in synagogues this Shabbat. It’s about remembering Amalek, the arch-enemy of our Israelite ancestors and the epitome of all our enemies through the ages. The implication is that though the Biblical Amalekites lived a long time ago, their heirs are still here to harm us.
The message is particularly poignant inIsraeltoday. It’s often articulated by the prime minister when he insists that the Iranian regime is today’s Amalek and that unlessIsraeldeals with it resolutely, it and its Jewish citizens will be in mortal danger. The Holocaust is often invoked in this context, more for effect than accuracy.
But several potential coalition partners in the government Netanyahu is now trying to form don’t seem to want to deal only with the Iranian threat. They also pay attention to the social issues and seem to suggest that right values are as essential for Israel’s survival as military prowess. These include the reduction of the growing inequality in Israeli society and peace with the Palestinians. Their primary proof text wouldn’t be “Remember Amalek” but, rather, “Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” which obligates us to treat all human beings as God’s creatures.
The Amalek reference seesIsraelas being in a state of crisis; the reference to remembering the stranger points to what theologians call covenant, the eternal bond between God and God’s people with the obligations this entails and a life style to match.
Yossi Klein Halevi, the gifted journalist and speaker, drew attention to these opposing texts and their implications at a conference last Tuesday at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem of which he’s a Fellow. The conference was aptly called, “From Crisis to Covenant: Rethinking a Narrative forIsrael.” Whereas the political Right is prone to cite the Amalek passage of crisis and the Left the covenantal references to having been strangers, Halevi believes that both are equally essential for Israel’s future.
Those who live by one text instead of both are under suspicion. Thus though nobody is in a position to challenge the analysis thatIranconstitutes an existential threat toIsrael, the almost exclusive stress on it may also be a convenient way of ignoring the many serious internal problems the country is facing. Similarly, to speak primarily about the price of cottage cheese and the non-payment of taxes by the rich, important though it is, may be a way of closing one’s eyes to even more urgent issues.
There’re indications that, despite his own apparent fixation with Iran, Netanyahu would like to form a government that reflects both texts. That’s probably why the first coalition agreement to be signed is with Tzipi Livni, who has put the so-called two-state solution in the centre of her platform. Netanyahu’s apparent wish to include Sheli Yachimovitch and her Labour Party’s social agenda may be of the same ilk.
That’s a positive development. It’s tempting to be cynical and say that as it’s much easier to point to a crisis than to seek to work out what it means to live up to our covenant with God by heeding Jewish teachings about the dignity of all humans and the primacy of peace and coexistence. However, cynicism, though often unavoidable, can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence the need for balance and proportion.
It makes for hope that, even at times of crisis, those elected to govern the Jewish state won’t abandon Jewish values by making Amalek the only defining text.
Jerusalem 20.2.13 Dow Marmur