Please read my latest Times of Israel blog here:
My beloved Conservative Movement, and its timeless ideas:
"In Emperor Julian's mind the myths that shock the vulgar are noble allegories to the wise and reverent. Purge religion from dross if you like; but remember that you do so at your peril. One false step, one self-confident rejection of a thing which is merely too high for you to grasp, and you are darkening the Sun, casting God out of the world.” - Five Stages of Greek Religion, Gilbert Murray
The quotation could apply to nearly any aspect of religious life and certainly to many things in Judaism. The idea that during Sukkot would be a bad time to bring a friend to synagogue, it being hard to explain the meaning behind a bunch of people wrapped in leather straps and capes, holding leaves and a lemon, marching in a circle and mumbling, is just one example.
The lesson of Murray’s analysis of the Apostate’s thinking is of course that there is value in a ritual like hakkafot. And that carelessly dispensing with anything in religion because it might seem absurd is a great sin. We don’t complain about our food for not being magnetic, and we shouldn’t complain about religious practices for being illogical.
In our parshah, the example on which I’d like to focus is that of the scapegoat, the goral echad l’Azazel. The High Priest conducts a ritual with two goats. One to be offered to God and the other sent to Azazel. This goat would carry with it the sins of all the people freeing them in a tangible and dramatic way and finalizing their efforts to atone.
It's weird, there are no two ways about it. Hertz in his commentary derides those who would say Azazel is a demon, noting that in the next chapter we are commanded, v’lo yizb’chu od et zivcheihem l’si’irim, as Hertz translates, “no more sacrifice their sacrifices to satyrs.” He quotes Gesenius in saying Azazel can only mean “dismissal.”
Even with all that, Hertz doesn’t make it any less weird. Okay, so it’s not an appeal to a demon, it’s still kind of crazy.
That, though, is the point. Our ancestors took sin seriously. It was a real thing. It was a palpable thing. No doubt some were themselves led astray by believing the ritual alone, and no change in behavior, would suffice to make atonement. But for many, it must have been a great relief to know that in addition to their sacrifices and their fasting and all other efforts to atone, that their sins had been carried away to not tempt them again, had to have provided a strong sense that life could start anew, that a new path could be taken to quite literally, go forward.
Would that we took sin so seriously. For us, I think the ritual is as preposterous because it requires us to “believe” in sin as much as it requires us to accept Azazel as whatever person, place or thing it might be.
We just don’t believe in sin. And not just sin. We don’t want to have anything to do with sin, suffering, sickness, catastrophe, evil, any of it.
And when you seek to live life avoiding all those things, what does it do for you? Nothing good. Just to focus on one example, the pandemic. As if the dangers of illness, hospitalization, and death, weren’t bad enough, at least with those there was some idea of how we might help people. But the greater host of dangers – of isolation, of meaninglessness, of sorrow, depression, and anxiety, those our society is woefully ill-equipped to address. People just don’t know what the remedy is for those sorts of things. They don’t know because even on a “good day” people don’t understand. If a thing doesn’t have a financial value that can be measured, or it isn’t a medical condition that can be seen and touched, people lack even a vocabulary for describing such things. They’ve forgotten the value of community, of not just the one or two good friends, but a larger network of people who care about each other. They don’t know about having a purpose in life beyond finding pleasure and fulfilling one’s basic needs. And despite how widespread such things are, mental and emotional conditions all too often are enigmas society would rather hide away than meet with love and a desire to understand.
That is because the ineffable, the poetic, the spiritual, even the absurd, these things lack in all value. And hence the parts of human life they are precisely meant to address become terrible problems. How do you deal with sin and guilt? You have to change, atone, forgive… and you have to put your sins on a goat.
You have to have stories and songs and dances and foods and clothes that bind you to others and that in sharing with them you find meaning and purpose. You can express joy and process pain – because there are huge parts of being human that are ridiculous, are absurd.
So, tie on the red string and head into the wilderness. Leave the metal with its imperfections. Shake the palm branch in all directions. Let the Sun’s light shine forth and even burn. We need all that. Being alive requires it. And if you have it, if you find it here and in other parts of your life, cherish and nurture it so others may find the same blessings, too.
Putin Isn’t Amalek
I want to defend Vladimir Putin. We just read Parshat Zachor this past Shabbat. It describes how a wicked villain, Amalek, the ancestor of Haman, attacked innocent and defenseless people in an unprovoked way and how we must always remember to fight against and utterly defeat Amalek because of this.
Sounds just like Putin, I can hear you saying. Nope, sorry, but it’s just not fair to say Putin is Amalek.
The passage we read, from Deuteronomy, says “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, upon your departure from Egypt’… ‘You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.”
The mitzvah is to remember, erase, and not forget, and is fulfilled in the following manner:
1. “Remember,” we read this passage on Shabbat Zachor, right before Purim, to fulfill the mitzvah, not just when it shows up in context in Ki Tetsei.
2. “You shall not forget,” in your heart, we must also reflect on it ourselves.
3. “You shall erase” - the mitzvah is in force until the day comes when Amalek is totally destroyed from the world.
4. Additionally, others would say fighting and killing Amalekites, is required as well.
Still sounds like it could apply to Putin, so consider definitions offered in our tradition regarding just who Amalek is:
Okay so why not? We need to look at who Amalek is or is today:
1. Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik says, “anyone who hates the Jewish people is from the seed of Amalek. “
2. Some rabbis think Amalek doesn’t exist anymore and that we are only required to remember what happened, but not to act against anyone.
3. Amalek is allegorical. The Zohar says he represents the forces of demons in the world and many Hasidic interpretations say he is the Yetzer Ra, the Evil Inclination.
None of them have Putin on that list. His actions against Ukraine aren’t aimed at Jews (remember he’s “denazifying” Ukraine, after all) and so in that regard the appellation, “Amalek” doesn’t fit.
Certainly, if Amalek doesn’t exist, or is Satan, or the Evil Inclination, then the title cannot apply to Putin either.
But – just because Putin isn’t Amalek doesn’t make Putin not evil. He, his world outlook, and his crimes in Ukraine and his disregard for his own people are all evil.
Evil abounds in the world. And we are called upon to fight it. The Psalms tell us, “Lovers of God hate evil.”
The potential for evil is nearer at hand to each of us than we’d like to admit. We learned a few weeks ago in the Daf Yomi, the daily Talmud study, that the Evil Inclination can be an untrustworthy companion who can lead a person astray, “for the heart of the human being is evil.”
No, no, no. If anything, Putin not being Amalek, the points to how seriously we must take evil. It dims and dulls our concern for it if we lump all evil and evildoers together. Who we must rescue, who we must defend, and who we must defeat all change depending on the threat evil offers and we need to name the evil plainly.
Furthermore, associating Putin with the mitzvah about Amalek may lull us into thinking simply reading the passage in the Torah discharges us from the duty to do more against him.
Can one really believe that would do anything to combat Putin? To help Ukrainians, or Russians, for that matter?
Non-Jews, America, our Allies, must help Ukrainians now! We must help regular Russians now! We must do whatever will stop Putin’s aggression even including stopping Putin himself if it comes to that.
That is a very different Mitzvah. Many in fact. To help those in need. To be concerned with the suffering of the world because we Jews have to show we aren’t just about ourselves. To not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. To not allow murder.
God’s world is a complicated place. We must take seriously each and every wicked and evil person or deed, so we know how to overcome them. So we can restore God’s peace and God’s safety to those who need it and make this a world in which God’s justice prevails.