On Parashat Zakhor, and sanctimoniousness.

Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD
7 min readMar 4, 2023

Today, Shabbat Zachor, we have read an extra bit of Torah besides the regular weekly Torah portion. Parashat Zachor, Deuteronomy 25:17–19. It is the famous -or infamous- commandment to erase Amalek, the tribe of our enemies so that not even their memory remains. Possibly, the earliest recorded case of cancel culture.

Which poses an intriguing problem. How is it possible to put the commandment to remember your enemy in the same sentence as the commandment to erase his memory? Ibn Ezra has solved this paradox. He explains that the Israelites have to follow this commandment only when they live in the Land of Israel. Even at that moment, the nation of Amalek won’t stop attacking. Hence the commandment: cancel them — from your land. Keep them far.

But who is Amalek? According to the Torah, he is the grandson of Esav. The Amalekites, his descendants, have transmitted the grudge of their forefather against Jacob and against the descendants of Jacob.

The origin of Amalek’s hatred for our people is a perceived injustice — you know, that old story of the lentils soup and the birthright. Over time such a grudge has magnified, inflated, and now it has become a true obsession for them. The Amalekites are kept together by this — for lack of a better word- racial hatred against the descendants of Jacob, all because of a misdeed committed generations ago.

The piece of Written Torah that we have read commands us to exterminate the descendants of Amalek. Shall we all start killing Amalekites once Shabbat is over? Obviously not. The Rabbis in the Oral Torah establish that there is no purity of lineage, so it is impossible to identify the Amalekites of the current time. Unless they reveal themselves through their actions. One of these guys who obsessively hates the Jews and wants to exterminate us is: guess who, the evil minister in the story of the Megillah… Haman.

Haman is an Amalechite, so the Rabbis teach, and as we know, he does his best to prove it. We have read these few lines, Parashat Zakhor, “remember what Amalek did to you”, to give us a reason to drink and to make noise on Purim, during the reading of the Megilla every time we will hear the H-name (Haman).

Now, I have to admit I have a problem with this whole business of Amalek, of Parashat Zakhor, and all the rest, especially with the fact that it is an introduction to Purim.

My problem is that the Shabbat before Purim, today, Shabbat Zakhor, has become a time for unbearable sanctimoniousness. It’s the time of the year when self-appointed Jewish leaders of all the declinations, from the more Orthodox to the more politically progressive, literally mount on the pulpit and give the most moralising, boring sermons ever.

Parashat Zakhor, the commandment to erase the memory of Amalek, is, for the Far Left, a terrible commandment, an exhortation to genocide (and who cares if generations of Rabbis read it otherwise). To them, these few lines in our Holy Book are so upsetting. Being exposed to passages like this hurts their feelings. And of course, when they read it, they think (hold on, that will be a surprise!) about the crimes of the Israelis. That is really surprising, I know, in the Far Left, they never think about the crimes of Israel… For these people, ancient Israelites wishing bad on their enemies are wrong, while similar sermons from contemporary Muslim preachers leave them unperturbed.

The spectacle on the more traditional side of the Jewish spectrum is even more pathetic. Who is, for these people, Amalek, the bad guy we must erase from our midst? The answer is everyone except them. Reform Jews are Amalek because they do not follow the Orthodox way of life. Secular Jews are Amalek because well because they are secular. Don’t ask. Whoever dares to ask questions is Amalek. Especially. Amalek is the male Jew who “marries out” and thus brings foreign blood into our midst. And an especially perverted kind of Amalek is the Jew who marries a non-Jewish person and then dares to Jewishly educate the offspring. Yes, you are Amalek for passing down the generations the Jewish identity of your family.

All of this, mind, the Shabbat before Purim. Sometimes the sanctimoniousness even extends to Purim itself. So you have the Far Left moralising about the concluding part of the Megilla, when -like in a Quentin Tarantino movie, Jews take revenge on their enemies. The presence of this kind of fantasy in our tradition troubles them more than, for example, actual terrorists such as Shamina Begun, whom they gladly would like to welcome back to England.

In the same way, the most traditional (should I say bigot) on the Right extend their sanctimoniousness by finding the most incredible excuses for Esther’s sexuality. Are we all adults here? OK, so we can say it. Esther makes use of her feminine beauty in order to persuade the Emperor to spare her people. And she succeeds! With an even more savant performance, she persuades the sovereign to get rid of Haman. But don’t tell the frummers. They will bring lots of stories and excuses to portray Esther as a modest discrete nice little Jewish girl. Possibly the only recorded case of a modest concubine in the world’s history.

Why, oh why, such a need to coat Purim with moral posturing? Why do both Left and Right want us to enter Purim in this sanctimonious mood?

Thelma Appel, “Esther’s Second Banquet”

Of course, the Megillat Esther is problematic for Orthodox Jewish sensitivity. Of course, the Megillat Esther offend the devotees to the religion of Wokeness. There’s everything in the Megilla that both sides find upsetting. There is sex. There’s violence. There is an arrogant evil villain who, in the end, is impaled, the most humiliating form of the death penalty. There is an idiotic king, easily manipulable and actually manipulated. There is a beauty pageant, and the girls paraded in front of the king are scantily clad. And probably even minor; no one checked their age anyway. The conclusion is an orgy of violence. The opening scene is a banquet with damsels dancing naked. Heaven forbid, perhaps there is even mixed dancing!

Everything contrary to religion and morality is there, in the Megillah. I actually wonder why it never comes with a content warning, such as “Warning: contains scenes that may be considered disturbing and cause occasional anxiety, such as a non-Jewish ruler who plans a genocide of his Jewish subjects. Here’s a list of resources besides your Rabbi. This book is not suitable for readers under the age of …”

Of course, the Megillat Esther is not suitable for minors. It’s not the bedside story I would read to my children. But who said that religion is only for children?

Let’s state things how they are. Purim, the joyous, chaotic & cathartic public reading of the Megillah, had sustained the Jewish people through centuries of persecution and exile, in situations and times when fantasies of revenge were totally understandable, even natural. Every oppressed minority nurtures this kind of fantasy. The difference is that despite reading every year a tale whose surprising conclusion is the massacre of the antisemites, our fantasies have never become a reality. No Gentiles were harmed in the production of the Megillah.

The most pious among us have used the Megillat Esther as a frame to understand the events and find God even when He or She is hidden. Much has been written about the absence of God in the Megilla. He or She is not even mentioned, and this is troubling for the religious. But all Jews are troubled by the absence of God in our life. Especially when we look for God and find nothing.

Purim tapestry.

Throughout the Jewish world, there are countless local Purimk on various days of the year, w Which Jewish communities celebrate the rescue from threats and dangers. There are special prayers, mishlach manot and a lot of merriness. Purim-like, indeed.

In Istambul, there was the Purim de Sargosa, with which the Jews from Saragosa, expelled from Spain in 1492 and resettled in Turkey, celebrated the anniversary of the cancellation of another threatened expulsion — from Istambul this time. Because life for the Jews was not always easy under the benevolent rule of the Ottoman Emperor, and whoever says the opposite lies. Jewish life is always precarious. There is even a Jewish version of the gunpowder plot, the Powder Purim. Commemoration of the explosion of a powder magazine at Wilna in 1804, when a local Jewish merchant miraculously survived. In Padua, they even have five extra Purim scattered all over the year, the most recent one instituted in the 20s when the local Fascist mob tried to assault the synagogue and the entrance door almost burnt down.

Throughout the centuries, Purim has provided our people with a frame, if not to understand the ups and downs of our collective history, at least to give hope that hostile decrees can be reversed and that our enemies, as strong as they seem to be, may in the end not be invincible. In a sense, Purim is a subversive holiday. It reminds us that no matter how powerful the powerful think to be, there is always someone above, a Higher Authority, in charge of the ultimate decisions. And no one who’s in power is happy to be reminded of this.

I really don’t know why self-appointed spiritual leaders, just before Purim, make such a point of lavishing their audience with moral posturing…Perhaps they love order and discipline more than they love Judaism. Perhaps they feel so insecure that they need to assert their personal authority. Perhaps it’s just another example of inflated egos. Perhaps they just don’t like when Jews are happy.

But in the end, who cares. Today is Shabbat Zakhor, let’s erase the memory of Amalek, and Monday, on Purim, we will deal in the proper way with his descendant, that evil guy: Haman (boooooh)

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Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD

I’m the first Rabbi ever to be called “a gangster”. Also, I am a Zionist.