There’s lots about this week’s Torah and Haftorah reading I don’t like – I’m not such a fan of the sacrifices discussed in the torah portion, and there is so much in the Haftorah story I find abhorrent. I don’t believe God told Samuel to tell Saul to kill the men, women and children and all their animals. I don’t believe bad things happened to those innocent children and the animals because god told his prophet to tell his king to authorise his soldiers to kill them. In front of the pyres of burning children, I’m not pointing fingers at god; I’m pointing fingers at humans. It's humans that need to learn to behave better, not god.
In fact, in the whole dividing line in Judaism between love of god and fear of god, I’m more in the former camp. I’m more about the chesed or lovingkindness than the din or law. I prefer Hillel to Shammai, statutes to codes, the Talmud to the Shulchan Aruch.
But as I get older, I see there is great value to the law part too, to deprioritising your personal rights to eat anything anytime, to keeping Shabbat, and to sanctifying life. The ultimate code of Jewish law is the shulchan aruch. It was written in Israel, by Yosef Karo in 1563 and published in Venice two years later. That means it was written just in time for the revolution of the printing press to carry it on its wings to small communities everywhere. There was probably a copy in my great grand-parents community in Lithuania. There was certainly a copy in my parent’s home in South Africa when I was growing up. It has been the most widely consulted source of Jewish practise for the past 500 years.
Here are two laws from the Shulchan Aruch that apply to us today particularly:
“There are those that maintain that the reading of Parshat Zachor and Parshat Parah is a Torah obligation. Therefore, people living in an area in which there is not a congregation are obligated to come to a place that has a minyan for these Shabbatot. This is in order to hear these Torah readings that are Torah commandments.” (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 685:7)
“A minor who has reached the age of ''Hinuch'' (5 or 6 depending) and he knows to whom one is blessing, and knows how to pronounce the letters correctly, may receive the Aliyah of Maftir on Shabbat and a Festival, except for the portions ''Zachor'' and Parah”
These laws are based on the assumption that it is D’oreita to read the Amalek section because it says directly “remember what Amalek did to you” It is a basic one of the 613 mitzvot. There is even the assumption in very orthodox circles that women are also obligated to hear these words.
It’s a really important law because it roots a long story of persecution, devastation and survival to the original story of persecution, devastation and survival. It makes a certain aspect of Jewish history a joined-up story rather than meaningless, random sad stories.
Because we are commanded to remember, and we have been commanded for so long, via the laws of the shulchan aruch, and because of the power of the printing press, I can be sure that every year for hundreds of years back, Jews in Spain, in Germany, in Lithuania, in Poland, in Egypt, in Palestine, in Syria and in Iraq, men and women, heard these words, and the ones that survived Chleminicki and other pogroms, the blood libels, the expulsion from Spain and England and the crusades, were the remnant that heard these words and remembered the suffering of those who didn't make it out alive.
We remember for ourselves, not for the dead.
We remember to remind ourselves that any personal story of suffering can be mixed into a bigger story of suffering, and that there will be no unseen, unremembered suffering. It gives shape to pain and comfort from the hope that while I won’t make it out of here alive, some else will.
Someone who didn't make it out alive was my great grandmother, Agnesia Steinman. Yad Vashem records note she was murdered in the Shoah. She was shot in the forests of Lithuania alongside her daughter, and four of her grand-children. There is no documentary evidence of her last moment. No-one recorded her last words. It’s horrible to think that like for the millions that died in the forests and in the trucks, in the ghettoes and in the crematoria, her last moments in front of the guns with her family around her, knowing they were going to be killed, were unseen and un-witnessed.
Instead, I prefer to imagine I go back in time, to 1941 before they were taken, to where she is standing in shul on Shabbat Zachor. We stand together behind the mehitza.
I can see her strong, intelligent face listening to this portion next to me, and I put my arm around her and I say to her:
“I will remember what Amalek does to you. Your suffering will be remembered, and because I am alive to remember, all will not be lost”