Irwin Brodo, 15 March 2003


Leviticus 1:1-5:26 [Triennial: 3:1-4:26] Hertz p. 410; Etz Hayim: p. 585

Deuteronomy 25:17-19 Hertz p. 856; Etz Hayim p. 1135


We read two portions today, and both are troubling for the modern liberal Jew.  We start Vayika and talk about animal sacrifices, and for maftir, because it is Shabbat Zakhor (just before Purim), we read about remembering Amalek and totally obliterating his name.

In today’s portion, we begin the book of Leviticus (Vayikra) and begin talking about sacrifices – most specifically, animal and grain sacrifices and how to purify ourselves through sacrifices.  Traditionally, children begin the studies of chumash with this book, not Bereshit.  The Talmud (R. Assi) says: Children are pure and sacrifices are pure.  Let the pure come and occupy themselves with the pure.”  We are told how to prepare the animals, how the blood should be dealt with, whether it should be burned entirely, as in a burnt offering (olah) or only partially burnt (zevach); and if so, what should be burned into smoke as G-d’s portion (generally the entrails and fat, which cannot be eaten anyway) and what should be roasted and eaten, often by the priests and the donor for certain types of offerings, as a kind of shared meal.  The chapters we actually read today in the Triennial cycle (3:1-4:26) begin on page 410 in Hertz and 585 in Etz Hayim.  Here we learn about the zevach sh’lamim (offering of well-being in Etz Hayim translation, or “peace offering” in Hertz.  “Shalem” or “shalom” can also mean wholeness or well-being.  These sacrifices are made by individuals who have something to celebrate and are feeling pretty good about life.


In general, sacrifices are made in order to come close to G-d.  G-d doesn’t need anything to “eat”, doesn’t smell anything (despite the anthropomorphic phrase, “it is a sweet savour unto the L-rd”).  Maimonides interpreted this as, “ it is pleasurable to G-d if the sacrifice brings a change of heart to the donor.” 


Chapter 4 goes on to discuss the chatat offering, translated as “Purification offering” in Etz Hayim and “sin offering” everywhere else.  The “sin” in this case is the guilt felt by someone, including the priest, who mistakenly does something or doesn’t do something and breaks a rule.  This sacrifice is supposed to bring the donor back into line.  In intentional breaking of the rule can’t be dealt with by a sacrifice since such a law-breaker wouldn’t regard sacrifice as effective anyway.  Doing something positive, rather than just mumbling to yourself that you won’t break the rules again and will try not to repeat the error, is what is important.  The Sefer Hanchinukh says the following: (Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra, pp. 27-28)


.           But how central are sacrifices in Jewish ritual and philosophy?  Apparently, sacrifices became so important that the prophets had to remind the people that sacrifices were a means to an end, not an end in themselves.  Jeremiah (6:20), Samuel (I Samuel 15:22), Hosea (6:6), Amos (5:21-24), Isaiah (1:11-14) all emphasize that sacrifices aren’t as important as righteousness, justice, mercy, good deeds and obedience.  (Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra, pp 3-5).


So, one has to ask, why were there sacrifices at all?  A midrash suggests that G-d said, “Better that they bring their offerings to my table than that they bring them before idols.”  Maimonodes explained in “Guide to the Perplexed” that it’s best not to move too far from what people are used to.  They were accustomed to sacrifices by the people around them, so sacrifices were incorporated into the Hebrew rituals.  The Israelites were used to being slaves, and it took a generation to change them.  Sacrifices weren’t an object. G-d didn’t need them.  They were used as a mechanism to gain something by giving up something, but in the name of the L-rd.   Just as G-d doesn’t need our prayers or praise, we need to pray and praise.  We need the sacrifices to feel close to G-d, said Maimonides.  The modern equivalent is charity.


Etz Hayim (p.585) talks of the need for a ritual framework for religious expression: the familiar, unchanging traditions that link us with the past and provide continuity.  “Doing it right” is appealing to most people, especially when times are tough.  And, if we are sometimes uninspired, rituals give us the framework we need to express ourselves spiritually even if we sometimes feel that we’re only “going through the motions.”


But this Shabbat is also special for another reason.  It is called, Shabbat Zakhor based on the first word of the additional reading for the up-coming Purim celebration (p. 1135).  It ends with the command, “Lo tishkah!” Do not forget!  What should we remember and never forget?  What Amalek did to the children of Israel when they left Egypt, preying on the weak and helpless stragglers in an unprovoked attack.  This was totally amoral and despicable and only could be understood because, as the Torah says, “they did not know G-d.” That is, they didn’t even have the basic feelings of humanity required of all humans.  Who were these Amalekites that we are commanded to annihilate them throughout time?  They apparently were a nomadic group living in the Sinai Desert and the part of the Negev that was south of the territory of Judah, just south of Beer-Sheba. Amalek, the leader, is thought to be the grandson of Esau.


There are many parallels to the call for remembrance that we see throughout history.  The Québecois say, “Je me souviens.”  Texans say, “Remember the Alamo.”  We remember the Six Million.  All of these represent types of defeat, and we remember them so that we work to prevent their repetition and remember the heroism that accompanied these events.  On the other hand, the Bosnian and Serbs, Turks and Armenians, etc. remember their history so that revenge remains constant in their minds.  Is this what we want for Amalek?  Should be be seeking out descendants of Amalek so that we can wipe them out?  According to some so called “sermons” I read on the internet, a few contemporary rabbis link Amalek with the present-day Palestinian Arabs.  I find this deeply disturbing.  Indeed, the Haftorah that we read today recounts the story of King Saul’s battle against the Agag and the Amalekites of his generation.  The time had come, as G-d suggested in our Torah portion, “when the L-rd your G-d grants you safety from all your enemies...” to finally deal with Amalek.  Saul is commanded to wipe out the entire Amalekite nation including the children and animals even though hundreds of years had passed since the original Amalekites had preyed so viciously on the wandering Israelites.  That Saul chose not to complete the task as he was commanded, sparing Agag and some animals, and was punished for it, adds to the moral dilemma we have with the idea of revenge and war without mercy.


  Indeed, how long should we insist on remembering our enemies?  Someday, hopefully soon, our present dat enemies will no longer be enemies just as Germans and Japanese are no longer enemies.  France and Germany, and England and France, were “traditional enemies” at one time but now are allies.  As circumstances change, our attitudes change, but most important, we should not hold subsequent generations or entire peoples responsible for past atrocities.  Today, most would agree that we must remember the circumstances that brought about the tragic wars they started so that we can prevent similar occurrences, but not hold descendants of their leaders to account. 


So, we try to understand the basically contradictory commands in this passage, “to blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven” even when we are admonished to “Remember what Amalek did to you...” How can you do both?  We read Megilat Esther in part to remember Haman, a descendent of Amalek, but blot out his name with noise.  This can only be understood by generalizing Amalek into a representative of unrestrained evil in the world.  Nahama Leibowitz (Studies in Devarim, p. 253) says, “Amalek,” against whom the Almighty declares eternal war, is not an ethic or racial group or concept but is the archetype of the wanton aggressor who smites the weak and defenceless in every generation.”   In other words, remember that evil people, like Amalek, exist.  Don’t shirk from dealing with them.  But blot out their names, not their people from the earth.