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 starving and weary and he cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, do not forget.
I spent a good part of each week last spring listening to Sr. Carla Mae Streeter. I listened and she listened. As we listened to each other we began to hear each other not only through our own lens but through each other’s lens as well. As we spoke about redemption and salvation and sex and celibacy, as we reached deep into the wisdom of our traditions about the beginnings and the end of life, about love of creation and love of God, about passion and justice and the broken heart of the world, we not only heard our own voices more clearly and deepened in our own faiths but I know that I began to see and understand through Carla Mae’s lens, and I know that I was changed by the experience. No, I didn’t convert. As I said, I deepened in my own faith, but I became aware of my sister’s world and it became a new chamber in my heart.
When you hear these words condemning Amalek, I imagine that they sound awful. The Interpreters Bible suggests that here we have just another example of Israelite nationalism. Moses was mad at the Amalekites from the time of the Exodus and wants to make sure that revenge will be taken when we are in the land. Read this way, the call to wipe out a whole nation (genocide) hardly seems like a teaching we Jews would want to lift up and repeat again and again. Destroy the destroyer. Where is the compassion, the forgiveness, you might ask? Wasn’t the point of leaving Egypt to create a whole new paradigm that would not be based on masters and slaves or of doing to others what was done to us. Thirty six times the Torah tells us to love the stranger because we know the heart of the stranger. But of Amalek it says, milchama ladonai ba-amelek midor l’dor, God will have war with Amalek from generation to generation. There is so much love for the stranger. Why no love for Amalek?
We add these verses to our cyclical Torah readings this week, on the Shabbat before Purim, each year. We call it Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembering. What is the connection between Amalek, the Torah’s symbol of pure evil, and Purim? On the simplest of levels the answer is Haman. The villain of the Book of Esther is a descendant of Amalek. Just as Amalek answers the question of the presence of evil for the generation of the Exodus so Haman teaches us that this evil is present in every generation. And these few verses in Deuteronomy that recall the awful slaughter of the innocents and the most vulnerable in Exodus present the paradox: that we are commanded to both blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven and at the same time to never forget.
When I look at this text through my lens I do not see a particular nationalist teaching at all. No, I see a universal teaching that demands that we look into the face of evil and asks; what was Amaleks’s sin? “He feared not god.” The commentary ( Nehama Leibowitz) says that this expression is used 4 times in the Torah in connection with non Jews and the criterion of god-fearingness is always measured by the attitude of the subject to the weak and the stranger. Where the fear of god is lacking, the stranger, the most vulnerable are likely to be murdered. But remember the midwives of Exodus. They did fear God and refused the royal command to slay the children of the strangers. We are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek because Amalek is not a people but the archetype of the aggressor who murders the weak and defenseless in every generation. If we are to know shalom, wholeness and peace, every act of violence from capital punishment to terrorism to war must stand before the test of Amalek.
The 11th century commentator Rashi says that all the nations had dread and awe but along came Amalek to show the way to others like a bath of boiling water, which no creature can get into. Then comes along a fool who jumps into it and though he gets scalded he has cooled it down for others. Amalek lowers the bar and returns the world to idols of gold, mortal power and the use of violence. And this is the deeper connection of Amalek and Purim. Purim is the ultimate teaching of what is God and what is not God. On Purim we make fun of everything, we dress up we tell the ridiculous story of a Jewish beauty queen who saves the day, we get so drunk we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai, good and evil, and we remember that if we can hold it in our hands, if we can name it, if we can know it, it is not God. The Book of Esther doesn’t even mention God. Why? Does this make is less holy? No! The rabbis say it is more holy because the secret is, once you name God you limit what cannot be limited in love, in compassion, in justice, in beauty, in grace. In fact Jewish tradition teaches that once the messianic age dawns the only holy day we will still have is Purim. Why? Because in every generation we have to remember to blot out Amalek, do not forget. In fact just in case we forget, the week after Purim the portion we read always contains the story of the golden calf.
Standing at Sinai, when we are just about to receive the Torah, the great reward for the holy chutzpah of leaving slavery behind, we sin big. The greatest sin in the Torah is the sin of the golden calf. Cain killing Abel, Jacob tricking Esau, Joseph’s brothers selling him out, these were big sins but not as big as the golden calf. (Eve and the apple was a good thing, inside the garden we had no purpose, outside the garden our lives had meaning but that’s another talk) It wasn’t the calf itself, or the gold that made it such a great sin. It was a sin because we fashioned the calf because we didn’t believe that Moses would come down from the mountain. We were too attached to Moses and lost our faith in ourselves and in God. We were scared, we wanted something familiar, and something we could see. So we turned to a golden calf that represented all that we had worked so hard to leave behind. With the calf we betrayed the promise that tomorrow could be better for our children and ourselves. With the calf we stopped believing that we could change. The calf represented the good old days that really weren’t so good but kept us in the comfort zone of what we knew. It was a feel-good materialistic and simplistic answer to the threats around us and kept us from having to face the much greater challenge of being a free people, each of us with a responsibility not just to ourselves but to a greater whole. The calf made us slaves again; it required only fear and obedience. It couldn’t love us back and it couldn’t care if we loved each other. It represented everything evil we had left behind but with Moses gone, our world seemed to be crumbling around us physically, spiritually and morally. It was so hard waiting, not knowing what would come next and so we turned to the golden calf even though it meant giving up our hard earned freedom. We turned to the calf because we were afraid for our children and ourselves. Without Moses, there was more stealing, adultery and violence. Without Moses, the courts were backed up. So, instead of controlling our yester, our inclinations, believing that the good in us could win, we gave ourselves over to the cynicism of the golden calf that said that only fear could control us and only money and power and self-interest would motivate us. In the moment we were sure that Moses would never return and we needed something we could see and know and be certain of to hold onto even if it meant giving up our freedom and our hope for a better life in the Promised Land.
But, the golden calf is so filled with itself there is no room for anything but itself. No room for a new thought or a new idea. The sin of the golden calf is the sin of certainty, believing that we can know what we cannot know, losing all humility, and from this sin, despite Moses’ pleas for forgiveness, many of us die. We learn that the price for the certainty is great.
Like the golden calf, the sin of certainty reduces the complex nature of creation to a single simple response that leaves no room for interpretation. The sin of certainty is what keeps us from tempering passion with compassion. The sin of certainty also has room for only one idea. It is what keeps us from listening to alternative views with open minds to receive new information and ideas that could change our beliefs not for political or self serving reasons but because our hearts have opened to them.
There is a beautiful image in the Jewish tradition that describes the kind of religious sensibility that the Talmud tries to nurture to save us from the sin of certainty. It says, “Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the house of Shammai and the House of Hillel, the ones who declare clean and the ones who declare unclean.” Judaism says, become a person in whom different opinions can reside together in the very depths of your soul. Become a religious person who can live with ambiguity, who can feel religious conviction and passion without the need for simplicity and absolute certainty. We have many examples of this in our tradition. In our collective heart of many rooms lives the belief that one must not fluff a pillow or touch a dying person if it would hasten death and the belief that if there is an obstacle that prevents the departure of the soul such as a noise or salt present on the tongue we must stop the noise and remove the salt to allow for the death. I know that we have all been there when in one moment we are praying for healing and in the next we know it’s time to let go.
Surrounding the story of the golden calf are the instructions of building the mishkan, the tabernacle. The mishkan is the antidote to our attraction to idolatry. God says, “Make me a mishkan that I may dwell among you.” “Make ME the mishkan,” God says, teaching us that any place that Godliness dwells is dynamic. Any place Godliness dwells requires relationship and different possibilities and opinions. The contrast to the solid calf is the openness of the mishkan.
To counter the sin of certainty, we try to produce souls who are not afraid to interpret situations in multiple ways and offer arguments for different positions and points of view with a kind of humility that always remembers that this is the human point of view and not Gods.
The sin of certainty always limits us and keeps us from the wonder and the promise of the possibilities for healing and hope in our mishkan.
The calf tells us that we must conform to the crowd, that we must be invisible to be safe. The mishkan tells us that each individual has something unique to be valued, that each of us with our own gifts must be fully present, visible, on the front line for the Tikkun, (repair of the world) to occur.
The calf tells us that we need to be certain to commit to a relationship or a goal and that questioning and doubt are weakness. With the golden calf we see a frozen reflection of what is and we become attached to it even if it is no longer true or good for us. We are trapped in the certainty that this is the only way; the only solution, the only path and we cling to it even when it isn’t right for us anymore. The mishkan always leaves the space for doubt and allows us to take risks that will grow into greater love, greater opportunity.
With the calf there is no room for change so we create stories that keep us from having to change to grow to do the hard work that living demands and we desperately need to believe them even when they are no longer true. The mishkan reveals the complex nature of our relationships, of society and of creation and gives us a way to live with the ambiguity. We do not have to pretend to be certain when we are not. We do not have to pretend to know when we don’t and we can let go of the stories that keep us bound to the idolatry of the calf. Stories that keep us stuck. We reclaim the possibility of change and transformation. There is no room for teshuvah (repentance and transformation) in the calf; teshuvah only exists in the space of the mishkan.
There are so many examples of how this sin of certainty works. One difficult one for me to talk about is how we can resist the sin of certainty with Israel. The space in the mishkan of our hearts allows us to love Israel without having to believe that God is an instrument and a guarantor of our political and nationalist success. The sin of certainty leads some of us to say that the land belongs only to us, but the mishkan teaches us that what matters is the present. In the present we are dwelling in a dynamic relationship with a God that demands that there must be justice in the present. The Torah teaches that we must have one law for the citizen and the stranger understanding that our stories, and the way that we interpret our lives would be different from those we share the land with. The mishkan teaches us that we cannot cling to old stories or messianic aspirations, but we must live in the present and in the present reality recognize that the heart of many rooms requires all sides to give up the certainty that only they will win. All will have a place or none will. The mishkan gives us the hope that a new solution will emerge.
Whether we are talking about the future of Israel or the genocide in Darfur or the earthquake in Pakistan or Katrina or Medicaid cuts, or advances in medical science, the sin of certainty threatens to keep us from responding in holy ways. With each one we could find a problem that would give us an excuse not to respond. It’s too complicated, its too hard, someone else is doing it, I’m not completely sure, it’s too messy. With each one we could fashion a golden calf that leaves no room inside for us and people would continue to suffer. Or we can embrace the mishkan and leave room for the possibility that each of us could be a small part of the solution.
I know that it’s difficult living with uncertainty in our inner mishkan. It’s difficult when you are waiting for chemo to work, for healing, for a child, for love. Some days it feels impossible to live in between the spaces of the uncertainty. We long to fill it with certainty even if we have to lie to ourselves.
I’ll bet Thomas Aquinas never imagined these two Jewish women would be preaching and teaching in his mishkan on his feast day! No golden calves here! Actually his friends Maimonides and Ibn Gabirol would probably be even more surprised than he would! But I have to believe that there is room for all of us and for Godliness and for something we have not even imagined yet to emerge. I am ever grateful to this place and to my friends here for sharing the chambers of your hearts with me, for the times we have stood together against injustice and oppression to blot out the memory of Amalek, and for believing that we need to listen to each other and that we need each other to heal the very broken heart of the world.