Remembering Christchurch, remembering Amalek
By Rabbi Jeffrey B. Kamins OAM
Tomorrow we celebrate Purim, a time of apparent laughter and levity in the midst of this month of Adar, which we think of as a month of increased joy. After 50 innocent people were murdered in Christchurch on Friday, and the same number of innocents remain injured in hospital, we cannot go into this time fully joyful.
Our hearts break for those worshippers murdered and wounded, for their families and for Muslims around the world. But breaking hearts are not enough, as we learn in the Shema that we should “love God with all our heart – and also with all our soul and with all our might.”
Our soulful active intellect requires us to think and ponder what is actually going on in this world. Last year in the United States, every act of terror was committed by white supremacists – attacking Jews, Muslim, people of colour and members of the LGBTQI community. It was a white supremacist who committed this act of terror in Christchurch, and they are actively spreading hate in Australia and around Europe as well. We must confess that there are those in the Jewish community who have been blaming Muslims for terror, when it is actually a small minority who we need to separate from Islam, isolating them as Islamists, not referring to them as Muslims. We need to be more thoughtful in our response to terror.
This lesson is especially true at Purim, in which we recall someone considered the first terrorist, Amalek, who attacked our the weak and vulnerable of our ancestors as they crossed from slavery in Egypt to freedom. Every year, in preparation for Purim, we read on the preceding Shabbat two special readings concerning Amalek. The first from the Torah requires us to remember what Amalek did to us, and to erase his memory; the second from the book of the prophets tells of how the first king, Saul, had the kingship torn from him because he refused to carry out the mitzvah of exterminating Amalek, sparing its king – among others. What is the connection to Purim? Haman is considered a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek; Mordecai, connected to King Saul through their common tribe of Benjamin. Purim is a re-enactment of our battle against Amalek, the commandment to kill every man, woman and child of that people counted as one of the “613 mitzvot”.
If you are not convinced how serious this is, you should know a little history: 25 years ago, on Purim day, a man named Baruch Goldstein went into a mosque, the cave of the patriarchs in Hebron, and having been guided by extremist rabbis, murdered 29 Muslims at prayer. While vastly condemned by most of the Jewish world, Goldstein’s grave has become a shrine in Israel, visited by some adherents. in Israel, and extremist leaders are running for political office there as well. So, we have our terrorists too, and just like Islam, Judaism does not want to be defined by them, any more than I as a white man want to be identified by white supremacists.
So, Judaism has a way of interpreting difficult passages, just as Islam does. A midrash teaches that Amalek’s ultimate transgression was coldness, chilling the empathy that resides within us. Our empathy requires us to open not just hearts, but minds. Our learning teaches us that Judaism teaches – as does Islam – that each of us is created in the image of God. Judaism teaches – as does Islam – that whoever destroys a single life is considered to have destroyed the whole world and whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world (B. Talmud Sanhedrin 37a, Qur’an 5:32). Our hearts and minds should lead us to right action.
Now is the time to get to know the other – to go beyond our cocoon and reach out and meet people from different faiths and backgrounds, visit their houses of worship, and build bridges not barriers. Now is the time to reject fear and distrust, and realise that we may be diverse in dress, language, culture, gender, ethnicity and faith, most of us humans dream of a world of peace and harmony. And that it is up to each of us to make our dreams come true.
The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies has launched a crowdfunding campaign for the Muslim community of Christchurch. To support, please click here: https://emanuel.org.au/christchurch