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Parashat Tetzaveh-Shabbat Zachor-Purim

March 8, 2017

What It Means To Be Godfearing: Parashat Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor/Purim

Rabbi Jill Hammer

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you left Egypt; how he happened upon you on the road and harassed you at the rear, all the stragglers that followed after you, when you were tired and weary, and he did not fear God. (Deut. 25:17-18)

The sages connect the Book of Esther to the story of Amalek, the tribe that attacked the Hebrews as they left Egypt. Deuteronomy identifies the people of Amalek with a particular kind of evil: attack on the vulnerable. Amalek does not attack the warriors of the Hebrews; he attacks weary, tired refugees from Egypt at the rear of the line: the infirm, the old, the parents with children who cannot walk quickly. Amalek demonstrates a complete lack of empathy for people who have suffered and have no strength to fight back, seeing in this situation a weakness to despise and a way to take advantage. Haman the Agagite, the tradition says, is a direct descendant of Amalek, and Haman carries out Amalek’s legacy and values by attempting to destroy the Jewish people.

By acting in this depraved way toward the Hebrews, Amalek earns the epithet of “one who does not fear God.” It is notable that this phrase is the opposite of the epithet received by the midwives Shifrah and Puah who save the vulnerable Hebrew babies: “They feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded.” In comparing the stories of the midwives and of Amalek, we might see in the phrase “yarei elohim,” God-fearing, a particular quality of refraining from violence against those who cannot defend themselves. Because there will be no consequences to attacking the weak and defenseless, it is called “God-fearing” to be kind to them. Yirah, then, can refer to a specific kind of righteousness.

In fact, Joseph says to his brothers: “et ha’elohim ani yarei”—I fear God—when he (as Pharaoh’s second-in-command) tells his brothers he intends to let all but one of them go home to their father, in order that they may prove their story. Joseph is in a position of power, and could harm the brothers without consequence. He is letting the brothers know that he intends to be generous with them even though they are vulnerable. His declaration that he is a “Godfearer” may indicate exactly this kind of generosity. Amalek, by contrast, seeks out the vulnerable precisely because they are easy to harm. He is the opposite of a God-fearer.

When Haman attacks the Jewish people, a tiny people among many, many Persian nations, a people the king does not know or respect personally, he acts in the tradition of Amalek. He offers to fill the king’s coffers with the wealth of this small and marginalized people, taking advantage of their lack of patronage at court. He blames them for disloyalty to the king, with no evidence to prove his words. Like his ancestor Amalek, Haman is not a Godfearer. Haman does not stint at harming the vulnerable.

What allows Amalek (and then Haman) to act in this way? Rashi accuses Haman of nihilism. Rashi focuses on the verb kara (to happen) that appears in the Amalek story: “he happened upon you on the road” (asher karcha baderech) and suggests that Amalek believes that everything is random, meaningless, happenstance, and therefore evil actions toward fragile people don’t matter. The Mei ha-Shiloah, a Chasidic commentary written by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer, accuses Amalek of a kind of fatalism. According to the Mei ha-Shiloah, Amalek claims that God ordains all things to happen, and therefore Amalek’s acts are approved by God. If God had not wanted Amalek to act cruelly toward the Hebrews, surely God would not have allowed the events to occur. This reminds me of a friend’s child who, when chastised for a misdeed, responded: “God made me do it!”

This second way of thinking is perhaps even more insidious than the first. When we embrace nihilism, we become convinced of the meaninglessness of life, the random cruelty of it. The antidote for this, presumably, is a sense of meaning, interconnection, and empathy. But when we embrace the idea that God is the cause of anything we do, we are engaging in spiritual narcissism. God can essentially be bent to approve anything that we ourselves wish. We can convince ourselves that we are righteous, empathic, reverent—without actually noticing the impact of our beliefs and actions on others. To counteract the first way of thinking requires faith in the meaningfulness of life. To counteract the second requires even more than that: the willingness to look beyond ourselves for confirmation of the impact of our beliefs and actions. This may be what “fear of God” means in the stories above: a concern for what God will think of our treatment of others.

The Mei ha-Shiloah writes: “Amalek attributes all of its actions to the hand of God, because without God’s will it would be unable to do anything. The proper response is to insist that the fear of heaven is in the hands of human beings and that they require service and prayer” (avodah u-tefillah).” Human beings don’t automatically act according to God’s will, and they don’t acquire “fear of God” by observing what they themselves do or want. Yirah is acquired by avodah u-tefilah—work on behalf of the divine and other people, and self-reflective prayer. These are activities that may allow us to break out of our bubble of self. Without unselfish practices to ground their lives, Amalek and his descendant Haman are unable to respect and cherish the vulnerable people they encounter.

The Mei ha-Shiloah concludes that the beautiful priestly vestments described in Parashat Tetzaveh, this week’s Torah portion, are meant to inspire “great fear and awe (yirah).” The commentary continues: “Only after the priest instilled awe (yirah) in the hearts of Israel would they find the capacity to absorb the joy and love that is derived from the incense.” The commentary suggests that it is the experience of yirah, reverence, that allows for true joy and love. This is true of human-divine relations, but it is also true of human-human relations: it is yirah that leads Joseph to charity for his brothers and leads the midwives to save the Hebrew children. It is yirah that causes Esther to risk her own life to help her endangered people.

We might define avodah, divine service, as the work of informing our lives with an unselfish reverence. This reverence can lead us to love of our fellow beings. May our celebration of Purim, our avodah this season, point us beyond ourselves. May the Book of Esther remind us of the vulnerability of those at the margins, and inspire us always to act with yirah.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute.