Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Beshalach
Lori and I are “hooked” on a series we watch on Netflix. “Designated Survivor” depicts the rise of an American President who ascended to office solely because he did not die when the entire Capitol Building blew up at the hands of terrorists. Its episodic themes present (intentionally or unintentionally) an incredibly “both-sided” (and sometimes eerie) commentary on American politics and government.
That said, we watched an episode the other night that partly focused on a Confederate monument built post Reconstruction, as an “in your face” to the minority community of the city in which it stood. Given the primacy of this conversation in the news, one would be hard pressed to say that its focus on TV was a coincidence. Looking around the table at which this debate took place, one found the stereotyped usual suspects. A Southern White man spoke out in favor of the heritage of the south. Two young women (one White and one Black) called him a racist and demanded that the Confederate Hero statue come down immediately. The government attempted to draw a compromise which no one liked. All eyes turned to an elderly African American man, a Pastor who had earned national prominence and respect (picture Dr. King at 80). As he spoke, the room grew quiet. He argued that the statue should stand where it is. The White heritage man glowed! The two young women bristled. The White young lady accused the Pastor of selling out just so he could get an invite to the White House.
The Elder Pastor stood up and tersely reminded the young lady that as a White Female, she had no clue what sort of abuse or degradation he had experienced in his life or what journeys he has had to travel. As her look of shock filled the camera lens, the Reverend reiterated, “That statue stays right where it is.” He went on to talk about how he refused to let the racism that still flares in this country get whitewashed and forgotten. He argued that removing the statue ends the conversation and all memory of degradation. Militantly, he wanted to have it to point to and teach from.
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Israel battles and defeats the Amalekites, an overtly evil people who do things that the Torah describes as indefensible. The text (Exodus 17:14) tells us that God commands Moses to blot out the name of Amalek from history. They are so evil that we should not remember them at all. If we really wanted to blot out Amalek, we should have left them out of the Torah story. No one would then have ever heard of them.
Theories are wonderful. Having the statue in one’s face, or hearing the command to blot out Amalek are great teaching moments. Theories do not always work. For many in my tradition, Amalek is just another story in the big picture. Even while we admonish never taking the Torah literally, there are those who will argue that “blotting out” Amalek is about Amalek; end of story.
No differently, while the Reverend’s strength of character taught him to stand up to bigotry, for so many who are not as strong, the statue remains only as a symbol of ongoing oppression. Caught between the ideal of remembering to fight the negative behaviors that hurt each other and the perpetuation of fear, we struggle.
We have better answers. Our goal, vis-à-vis Amalek, is not to blot out the memory of what happened but to blot out the behaviors from being replicated. Every day, the scribes who write Torah scrolls start by writing the name Amalek and then blotting it out with ink. If we intentionally “blot out Amalek,” we have to remember what horrible things people did and commit to never doing them. It is an ongoing wrestling match.
As with the statue, for so many, it will never be a teaching tool. That said, we now have the Memorial for Peace and Justice, a bold memorial to the mass lynchings that sully our nation’s history, in Montgomery, Alabama, and to the bigotry that remains still too prevalent in our world. It is horrific, and it is powerful.
We need to remember where we have been previously stuck in oppression if we intend to move forward in righteousness. We need to be intentional as to how we use teaching tools and symbols, making them transparently accessible to people, all people. For the present day Amalekitish oppressor (bullies) and modern-day bigot, we have to take an unequivocal stand. Justice First and Justice Now. Shabbat Shalom.