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SHABBAT ZACHOR 5775

SHABBAT ZACHOR 5775

My colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg tells the story of how, in the summer of 1968 when the Vietnam War was flaring he had just received his Simcha, rabbinic ordination: I thought it meant that I would be deferred from the draft. But a few weeks after receiving my ordination, I got my draft notice and 3 months later I found myself in a gunship helicopter flying over the Mekong Delta with my co-pilot—a nice kid from New Jersey named Brian Williams. Wait…wait a minute. Maybe it wasn’t the Mekong Delta…it was Manhattan. And maybe it wasn’t a helicopter gunship…but a 1964 Buick. And maybe my co-pilot wasn’t Brian Williams…but my wife, Sherry. That’s what happens when you “misremember. 

We owe NBC’s Brian Williams a debt of gratitude for making popular this word, “misremember,” when he explained why he had claimed to have been in a military helicopter that was shot at in Iraq and it was later discovered that he was in another helicopter that had landed a half hour later. His explanation for his mistake? He had “misremembered.” 

Today is the Shabbat before Purim called, Shabbat Zachor—the Sabbath of Remembering—not “mis-remembering”—and we read the Torah commandment (Deut. 25:17): Zachor eyt asher asa l’cha Amalek, “Remember what the people of Amalek did to you when you left Egypt”…when Amalek came and attacked from behind, trying to destroy the Jewish people. Lo tishkach, “Don’t forget,” says the Torah. It’s very important to remember exactly what happened because only in so doing can you hope to assure that it will never happen again. 

And so when I heard Mr. Williams claim that he had “misremembered,” I said to myself what I suspect most of us thought: “Really!? A brilliant reporter like NBC’s Brian Williams would never forget such a thing. How can he lie like that?” But then I did some research and found that people can reconstruct events in their lives in such a way that they feel like genuine memories. I’m not sure I fully understand this but I do know that the Torah understood it! In fact, in the Torah we Jews were guilty of misremembering as well.

While the Jews were traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land, they complained to Moses about life in the desert saying the most remarkable thing: Zacharnu et hadaga, “We remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt; the cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and the garlic.” They thought they were remembering, but in fact they were “misremembering.” Did they eat this kind of food in Egypt? According to our Sages they ate just matzah. That’s why we call it the “bread of affliction.” But even if they had all that food, they’re still “misremembering” what came with it—the horrors of slavery like the killing of Jewish babies.

Yes, misremembering—it happens to the best of us. Recently, I believe it happened to Barak Obama—not once but 3 times: twice in regard to the Jews and once in regard to Christians. In an interview Obama said, “It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.” Did Obama say that the terrorists in Paris were merely “zealots” and their choice of killing people in a kosher deli was simply “random?” Yes, that’s what he meant and his own press secretary and a State Dept. spokesperson confirmed it.

This was Random? The terrorists could have just as easily chosen to shoot up a “Halal” Muslim deli? Didn’t Obama remember that one of the terrorists called out to reporters: “I have 16 hostages and I have killed 4. I targeted them because they were Jewish”? This was random? Talk about misremembering!

Obama also misremembered an event that took place 1,000 years ago when he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast. He reminded those in attendance that violence rooted in religion is not exclusive to Islam, but has been carried out by Christians as well. In the President’s own words, “Unless we get off our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

I must tell you that in all my years, this was just about the most bizarre statement I’ve ever heard come out of the mouth of a President. Islamic terrorists have always justified their acts of terror as a response to what Christians did to Muslims during the Crusades. That’s why they call Christians “crusaders.” For Obama to make a statement that seemed to lend credence to the battle cry of Islamic terrorists is absolutely mind boggling!

Obama seems to misremember that the Christians emerged from those Dark Ages…but it doesn’t seem as if Islam has. Saudi Arabia—ruled by Sharia law like ISIS—beheads people for sins like sorcery. Iran hangs people for sins like “enmity with Gd,” and in January Iran executed 80—the highest rate in the world. This is not ISIS…this is Iran! Stoning to death is still a form of capital punishment in countries like Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Somalia. Guess what all these countries have in common. Islam! Not “radical” Islam! Ahmed al Tayeb—Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al Azhar University—said that the leaders of ISIS and Boko Harem should be “crucified and have their hands and feet chopped off.” This is mainstream Islam!   

The 3rd thing President Barak Obama misremembers is that exactly 3 years ago, during a visit to the White House—2 days before Purim—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Obama a copy of Megilat Esther—the Book of Esther. Assuming he read it, Obama misremembers that just as Haman, the chief minister of Persia tries to annihilate the Jews, today the chief ministers of Iran/Persia are trying to build nuclear weapons—as they’ve said over and over—to annihilate the Jewish nation.  

There are so many eerie similarities to what’s happening this week to the Purim story. By coincidence…and you know how I always quote Albert Einstein who said, “Coincidence is Gd remaining anonymous”…by coincidence, Prime Minister Netanyahu is due to speak before the Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday, March 3rd, hours before the 13th of Adar, the eve of Purim, on the subject of the Iranian/Persian nuclear threat to destroy the Jewish State…and the 13th of Adar is the Fast of the Esther to commemorate the fast of the Jews before Esther spoke to the king about Haman’s threat to destroy the Jewish people.

Obama is upset, he says, because Netanyahu, who was invited by Speaker of the House John Boehner did not follow customary protocol in seeking White House approval for his visit. Remarkably, this is not the 1st time the issue of protocol lies at the heart of an Iranian/Persian threat to destroy the Jewish people. In the Purim story Queen Esther was forbidden to speak to the king without being summoned. And just as Esther broke protocol to speak to the king because the Jewish people were threatened by a high ranking Persian leader—Haman—with annihilation, so Netanyahu ignored protocol to speak to Congress and the American people because the high ranking leaders of Iran threaten Israel with annihilation.

Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman, the chief Persian politician. Netanyahu did not bow to the chief American politician just to seek permission of to speak his mind. Queen Esther managed to persuade the king to change his mind, and save the Jewish people. Netanyahu is attempting to persuade Congress to take action and save the Jewish people today. The evil Haman was hanged because of his plan to kill all the Jews. Netanyahu may suggest sanctions on Iran not just to prevent their objective of annihilating the Jewish State, but also their threats to the Free World and even to the Sunni Islam world, which includes states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  

On this Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembering, let’s keep in mind that remembering correctly is very important. In fact, there is a tradition for every Jew to properly remember 6 things every day. You can look later in your prayer books on page 176 where they’re listed. There are 3 positive events to remember: the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the Sabbath of Creation. And there are 3 negative events to remember: the sin of the Golden Calf, Miriam’s sin of gossip and the sin we remember today—the sin of Amalek.

There are good things and bad things to remember…but whatever it is, it’s important that we remember and not misremember. Misremembering led to the downfall of NBC’s Brian Williams. What does proper remembering do? The Baal Shem Tov teaches: “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” Amen!

                             Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

                             2/28/15

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