Megillah Esther Part I – The Tale

Megillah Esther Part I – The Tale


Howard Adelman

I should have written this as the first essay in my series on antisemitism. For this is the first tale about antisemitism. It is set in Babylon between the period of the first and second Jerusalem temples. However, tonight is Purim, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Book of Esther and the escape of the Jews from the evil Prime Minister of the Persian Empire, Haman, who was determined to exterminate Jews throughout all the lands of Persia that extended over 127 provinces from India westward to Ethiopia. He was the world’s first antisemite. This is the appropriate time to tell the tale.

I will write about that antisemitism, but I must first build the foundation by recapping the tale itself to set in place the parts and then explicate the genre of fiction known as romance in which Esther fits.

However, as Jane Austen taught us, everything is not always what it seems. Everyone wears masks and, to understand what is going on, the royal court must be unmasked. We begin with a depiction of the romance of the court itself when King Ahasuerus in Shushan, the capital of the Persian Empire, in the third year of his reign, had a great feast inviting all the members of his royal household, all of his military officers, all the princes and princesses throughout the provinces for a week-long feast after 180 days of celebration throughout the empire. Talk about the excesses of royal conspicuous consumption! It is difficult to find anything that competed before or since as the guests drank out of vessels of gold in a room where:

“there were hangings of white, fine cotton, and blue, bordered with cords of fine linen and purple, upon silver rods and pillars of marble; the couches were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of green, and white, and shell, and onyx marble.” (1:6)

The first sub-plot begins with the introduction of Queen Vashti that will adumbrate the whole story about costuming and revelation. On the final day of the big bash, before the officers and princes of the court, the king summoned Queen Vashti “before the king with the crown royal, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on.” (1:11) She was required to appear nude with only the crown on her head to be put on display as a trophy wife. With this initial act of vulgarity, it should be no surprise why many rabbis speculated that Ahasuerus was originally a commoner who had usurped the throne in a coup.

To the king’s complete embarrassment, Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s bidding lest she be humiliated before the whole court. Did she know the risks she was taking? Did she understand what it meant to publicly defy the will of the king? She stood on principle no matter what the risks. It is very difficult to know or understand why the rabbinical commentators needed to portray her as a wicked queen. There is not even a hint of that in the story. Sure enough, Ahasuerus was boiling mad; “the king was very wroth, and his anger burned in him.” He was not thinking about what an ass he had been to issue such a stupid order when he was drunk.

Seething, King Ahasuerus turned to his wise men and advisers and asked what he should do. How should he respond to this act of willful disobedience?

Yesterday was International Women’s Day protesting against the remaining remnants of a patriarchal society. In a patriarchal society, such disobedience of women to their male overlords might set a precedent. The advisers advised. “For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not.” (1:17) Man is owed honour and respect from his women, the very principle romantic tales subvert. To set an example, Queen Vashti, because she would not appear naked in her crown before the whole court, was stripped of all her properties, all her magnificent gowns, all her jewelry and cast out of the court.

The whole point of this prolegomena was to set the stage of what Esther would be risking when she chose to disobey the king’s edict much later in the tale. With the dismissal of Vashti, there came an opening for a new queen. Like the tale of the golden slipper, a search was begun for the prettiest maiden in the land.

A new character and the major plot is then introduced. Mordecai, a Jew who lived in Shushan, the capital, was “the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite.” (2:5) This is an important detail which almost no rabbinical commentator overlooked. For in saying that Mordecai was a Benjamite among the Jews captured when the first temple was destroyed in Jerusalem and transported to the capital of the Persian Empire, we are led to recall that Mordecai was himself a descendent of royalty, from the tribe of Kish, the name of King Saul’s father. And, going further back, the descendent of Benjamin the youngest and favoured son of Jacob. We also remember that Jacob tricked Esau into giving him the birthright and, according to lore, bequeathed eternal enmity between the descendants of Esau and of Jacob, between Amalek, the grandson of Esau, and any Jew, suggesting that antisemitism has very deep roots in familial rivalry. Yet it is the name Mordecai that means “bitter,” though Haman will be the source of the “tumult” (the meaning of Haman) between him and the Jews of the Persian Empire.

Hadassah (Esther or Ishtar, in Aramaic “bright star”) was Mordecai’s niece whom he adopted and raised. Thus, we have introduced the archetypal orphan so beloved of romance novels. Esther is itself a mask for her real, earthier, name. Hadassah means myrtle, the symbol of righteousness. Further, and of course, she was a natural beauty. She joined the contestants for queen by becoming a concubine under the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women in the royal court. Esther rose quickly to become the king’s favourite and “Esther had not made known her people nor her kindred; for Mordecai had charged her that she should not tell it.” (2:10) In other words, she hid her religious and ethnic identity. The masks were on. The situation was similar to the one where the Chancellor in the court of the Chinese Sung dynasty had his beautiful sister become his spy by having her planted among the women of Kublai Khan’s harem.

Unlike the Sung dynasty chancellor, Mordecai supposedly cared about Esther and her well-being and paced below the women’s house in the court to gain information, not on Ahasuerus, but on the well-being of Esther. Maybe he was himself a spy on the court? Perhaps his interest was not Esther’s welfare, but that was just an excuse for walking below the women’s house. Perhaps Esther was his planted inside secret agent. In any case, four years after the big bash and discarding Queen Vashti, “the king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.” (2:17) And it is repeated: “Esther had not yet made known her kindred nor her people; as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him.” (2:20)

The next step in the plot takes place. Mordecai overhears two chamberlains of the court plotting a coup. Mordecai told Esther. Esther told the king. And the two traitors were duly hung following an investigation.

The introduction of Haman, the Agagite, who became the Vizier or Prime Minister, followed. Like the Israelites, Haman was also a foreigner and a sojourner, but a descendent of Agag from the Negev, a people whom King Saul slew in a massive genocide. For the Agagites were descendants of Amalek. But a few must have escaped the slaughter. A deep desire obviously burned in Haman’s gut to avenge the destruction of his people.

When Haman was appointed by King Ahasuerus as Prime Minister, the king commanded that all bow before Haman, and, for Jews, before Amalek. But, “Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him.” For an analysis of why Mordecai refused to bow down, see my daughter Rachel’s article, “Why Did Mordecai not Bow Down to Haman?” ( Was it because bowing was viewed as idolatry or because Haman was a descendent of Amalek? Or both?

Mordecai never offered a reason when the king’s servants asked him why he refused to bow before Haman. (3:2) Except he told them he was a Jew. Esther could not tell that she was a Jew, but Mordecai would use his being a Jew to excuse his refusal to bow before Haman.

Haman, on hearing the news, was full of rage. The text then continues: “it seemed contemptible in his eyes to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had made known to him the people of Mordecai; wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.” (3:6) Killing Mordecai alone would leave Haman open to revenge by his fellow Jews, especially if they learned he was an Agatite. Haman would have to kill all Jews. The mass murder was justified in the same way the exile of Vashti was justified – he needed to uphold the perception of absolute authority. But if he only had Mordecai’s slain, he would have left himself open to revenge from Mordecai’s fellow Jews. Haman bided his time.

About five years later he worked out a plan. Playing Bannon to Trump, he planted the seeds of a fifth column in the king’s mind, a very early version of a conspiracy theory. Further, the king would benefit financially from this solution to “the Jewish problem.”

8 And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: ‘There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them.
9 If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king’s business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.’

King Ahasuerus gave Haman his signet ring to show he had the authority to carry out the deed. The decree went forth. What did Mordecai do? He panicked. Bewailing his and his countrymen’s fate, he put on sackcloth and ashes and mourned their imminent fate.  And all Jews in the empire followed suit. But this was the beginning of Esther exhibiting her independence from her uncle Mordecai, to whom she had always been an obedient niece. She challenged his fatalist approach and urged him to don proper clothes and discard the sackcloth. Mordecai refused. He sent back the details of the orders to destroy the Jews to Esther through her servant or steward, Hathach, for the meaning of his name is that he was assigned as Queen Esther’s protector.

What could Esther do? The law was clear and unequivocal. She could not appear before the king unless she was summoned. She knew what had happened to Vashti when she disobeyed the king’s edicts. Mordecai replied to this message in an early version of JFK’s, “Think not what your nation can do for you. Think what you can do for your nation.” “Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews.” (4:13) Esther wrote a note back asking all Jews to fast for her for three days. And she vowed, “so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (4:16)

Remember she was a real beauty. After three days, she dressed for the part and appeared in the courtyard of the king and he raised his sceptre bewitched by her beauty and invited her in. He promised to grant any wish, even to give her half his kingdom. Her only wish she said was to hold a banquet in honour of both the king and Haman. The king once again promised to grant any petition she put before him. Haman on receiving the invitation burst with pride at his rise to the heights of the royal court.

At the same time, he prepared a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. But that same night, the king could not sleep and reviewed his Chronicles and came across the story of how Mordecai had discovered the plot to overthrow him as he learned he had never rewarded Mordecai for this deed. When Haman came before the court the next day without this background knowledge of what was in the king’s mind and the king asked, “What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?” (6:6) it should be no surprise that, given the banquet that was being held and his invitation, that he believed the question was about himself. He answered, let the man be clothed in the king’s apparel and ride on the king’s horse through the streets so that he may be honoured.

Can you imagine the shock when the king agreed and ordered Haman to take the apparel for Mordecai to don and the horse for Mordecai to ride? It was now Haman’s turn to mourn for he had to know the fate that now awaited him, a fate reinforced by his wife and friends for Haman had challenged the edict of governing the Jewish treatment of the descendants of Amalek. But Haman still had to attend the Queen’s banquet for the king.

At the banquet the king once again promised to grant Esther any petition. She asked for the king to give both herself and her people’s lives and she told him about the plan to destroy her people.  She had heretofore kept quiet because revealing the name of the Jew’s adversary might damage the king. But the king asked who and where he was that would dare do such a deed. Esther said, “Haman.”

Haman, if he was terrified before, had to be trembling in his boots. When the king left the banquet in wrath to seek out Haman, Haman entered and fell pleading before Queen Esther. The king returned and interpreted what he saw as an effort of Haman to rape Esther. “Will he even force the queen before me in the house?” (7:8) And Haman was hung on the gallows originally built for Mordecai.

However, the king had a dilemma. The destruction of the Jews had been ordered under his seal. He could not retract the order. But what he could do and what he did was authorize the Jews to defend themselves against those who would kill them

Thus, were the Jews saved.

Tomorrow: The Analysis of Esther as a Romance


With the help of Alex Zisman


Politics and the Administration of Justice

Politics and the Administration of Justice: Yitro: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23


Howard Adelman

My commentary is restricted to Chapter 18.

The Israelites, or, at least Moses, had been taught the basics of diplomacy and how to deal with an irrational and vengeful tyrant. The Israelites were then taught some core lessons in the art of war. Diplomacy and military skills may be necessary for a people to be secure. But the key will be politics, the ability of a people to govern themselves.

“But I thought that the Israelites were governed by God!” That is a misconception. Parshat Yitro illustrates that this conception is erroneous. The Israelites had fought and won a glorious and impossible victory. Last shabat was shabat shira, the shabat of song and rejoicing when Miriam with song and timbrel against the backdrop of the sea led the Israelites and danced and sang the night away. The God of tradition, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the god of diplomacy and wrath who subsequently revealed Himself as a warrior God, a God of war, has now made room for pleasure and joy, for happiness and delight. God talks but He does not sing. It is we who sing in praise of God – and other things. Does God now reveal Himself to His people, to all his people, as a god who can teach the people the arts of government and not just the arts of war?

Water was scarce. The principles of change had been transformed into the principles of security and resistance against change. Food too had been scarce. Neither the earth nor the heavens opened up to feed the people. Their souls were starving even more than their bodies. Little did they know that the exhilaration of victory would be followed by the long and dark tunnel of struggle, of resentment. Appreciation for what they had and for what they had accomplished had been replaced by resentment and self-pity. The water they drank had become bitter.

The water is made sweet. The heavens and the earth yield, if not their bounty, sufficient amounts to survive. And the military tradition becomes professionalized as Joshua defeats Amalek, with Aaron and Hur each holding one arm of Moses on the hill overseeing the battle.

Against this backdrop, Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ father-in-law, appears on the scene to reunite Moses with his wife, Zipporah, and his two sons, Gershom (stranger in a foreign land) and Eliezer (God is my help). Moses will have to introduce his people to a land that will not be foreign, but will be their own land. Moses will also have to help his people learn self-reliance and not be so dependent on God’s help and assistance. But Moses, himself, in keeping his family safe while everyone else risked their own families, demonstrated that he was not fully of the people. The other Israelites had their families, their wives and children with them. Further, Moses himself was still far too reliant on God.

Why were Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer left in the safety of the home of Jethro while Moses took on the Egyptians in an epic diplomatic and military battle? The question is not only not answered, it is not even asked. Instead, Moses updated his father-in-law, not an Israelite but a Midianite priest. The next day, Jethro watched Moses serve as the magistrate of his people resolving disputes among them.

The scene reminded me of one when I was first introduced to Arafat. We were in Gaza. It was about 10:00 p.m. in the evening. We were ushered into a large room with chairs all around the perimeter of the room. There were perhaps 16-18 people occupying those chairs. Recall, it was 10:00 p.m. in the evening. We were escorted past those waiting supplicants into a smaller reception area where four others were waiting. We did not sit but stood. Soon, two individuals emerged from another adjacent room. One brushed past us and the other invited us to follow him in.

Arafat came out from behind his desk, grasped each of our hands with both of his and greeted us warmly. We were individually introduced, all four of us, and Arafat nodded at the introduction. There was no translation into Arabic and it was not clear to me whether Arafat followed the introductions. Pleasantries were exchanged and then we were invited by our escort to follow him out of the room, but not before there was some more grasping of hands and smiling nods.

When we left and were once again outside, I asked the leader of our group, a very experienced diplomat, what that was all about. He said it was a courtesy introduction before we could continue our discussions in Gaza. My question, however, was not about the perfunctory introduction, since it was clear that it had just been a formality. I wanted to know what Arafat was doing seeing people in the late evening with twenty or so waiting to talk to him.

I was told that this is what Arafat did and often until three in the morning. He saw Palestinians who wanted a favour, a disposition, an intervention in a domestic or business dispute, or on any other matter under the sun. It might be a request to adjudicate a dispute with a next door neighbour over a fence line. Arafat had never been educated by Jethro. He lacked a father-in-law to serve as a mentor. Arafat was performing as Moses did before Jethro arrived on the scene in Sinai.

13. It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening. יגוַֽיְהִי֙ מִמָּ֣חֳרָ֔ת וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב משֶׁ֖ה לִשְׁפֹּ֣ט אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֤ד הָעָם֙ עַל־משֶׁ֔ה מִן־הַבֹּ֖קֶר עַד־הָעָֽרֶ

Unlike the Palestinians in Gaza waiting to see Arafat who had seats, the Israelites waiting to see Moses had to stand for hours.

14. When Moses’ father in law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?” ידוַיַּרְא֙ חֹתֵ֣ן משֶׁ֔ה אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה לָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֗אמֶר מָֽה־הַדָּבָ֤ר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה עֹשֶׂה֙ לָעָ֔ם מַדּ֗וּעַ אַתָּ֤ה יוֹשֵׁב֙ לְבַדֶּ֔ךָ וְכָל־הָעָ֛ם נִצָּ֥ב עָלֶ֖יךָ מִן־בֹּ֥קֶר עַד־עָֽרֶב:

Jethro remonstrated Moses. Moses had made the Israelites stand for a long time and did not respect the dignity he owed each of his people. He was akin to the physician who has all his patients come early and accumulate lest the doctor lose time waiting. For hours, the Israelites stood while he, Moses, sat. Secondly, Moses handled all the adjudication personally. Moses replied to Jethro in a defensive way. “I did not ask them to come. They sought me out. Secondly, they came to see me not just to seek a resolution of a relatively petty problem, but to seek God’s ruling on such matters. They come to seek God. In other words, as God’s stand-in, I, Moses, am only a conduit for God’s word.” We are presented with a case of government which is neither responsible nor responsive, neither representative nor respectful,

15Moses said to his father in law, “For the people come to me to seek God. טווַיֹּ֥אמֶר משֶׁ֖ה לְחֹֽתְנ֑וֹ כִּֽי־יָבֹ֥א אֵלַ֛י הָעָ֖ם לִדְר֥שׁ אֱלֹהִֽים:

As far as Jethro was concerned, that was no answer at all. For at least two consequentialist reasons. The process would wear out Moses and would also make the people weary – all that waiting, and in terrible circumstances just at a time when they needed relief, not a further weighty burden.

17. Moses’ father in law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not good. יזוַיֹּ֛אמֶר חֹתֵ֥ן משֶׁ֖ה אֵלָ֑יו לֹא־טוֹב֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה:
18. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. יחנָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל גַּם־אַתָּ֕ה גַּם־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּ֑ךְ כִּֽי־כָבֵ֤ד מִמְּךָ֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר לֹֽא־תוּכַ֥ל עֲשׂ֖הוּ לְבַדֶּֽךָ:
19. Now listen to me. I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you. [You] represent the people before God, and you shall bring the matters to God. יטעַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ הֱיֵ֧ה אַתָּ֣ה לָעָ֗ם מ֚וּל הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהֵֽבֵאתָ֥ אַתָּ֛ה אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִֽים:
20. And you shall admonish them concerning the statutes and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the way they shall go and the deed[s] they shall do. כוְהִזְהַרְתָּ֣ה אֶתְהֶ֔ם אֶת־הַֽחֻקִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַתּוֹרֹ֑ת וְהֽוֹדַעְתָּ֣ לָהֶ֗ם אֶת־הַדֶּ֨רֶךְ֙ יֵ֣לְכוּ בָ֔הּ וְאֶת־הַמַּֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַֽעֲשֽׂוּן:
21. But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens. כאוְאַתָּ֣ה תֶֽחֱזֶ֣ה מִכָּל־הָ֠עָ֠ם אַנְשֵׁי־חַ֜יִל יִרְאֵ֧י אֱלֹהִ֛ים אַנְשֵׁ֥י אֱמֶ֖ת שׂ֣נְאֵי בָ֑צַע וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ עֲלֵהֶ֗ם שָׂרֵ֤י אֲלָפִים֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מֵא֔וֹת שָׂרֵ֥י חֲמִשִּׁ֖ים וְשָׂרֵ֥י עֲשָׂרֹֽת

Simply put – delegate. Give the lesser matters to others and only involve yourself in the very major disputes. Note, there is no separation of powers between executive and judicial functions. The judiciary are still named and appointed by Moses and are only permitted to rule on relatively minor matters. Further, they also serve as political leaders to apply the laws handed down from Moses.

But they are chosen based on their rectitude, their unconcern with using their positions to advance their monetary interests for they are already men of substance, men of chayil (חַ֜֜יִל) in the material sense and in a sense that they carry with them gravitas. For chayil refers not only to wealth, but to strength of character, a man of moral worth, hence, a man of substance. They are serious men. They must also be both honest and God-fearing in order to carry out their responsibilities. It is as if they put their property in a blind trust. After all, the Talmud, as Rashi cites it, says, “Any judge from whom money is exacted through litigation is not [fit to be] a judge.” [based on Mechilta and B.B. 58b] They must use their positions only to judge honestly and impartially.

This is not a lesson in self-government. It is still a top-down system. There is still no differentiation between the executive branch, the judicial branch and the legislative arms of government. God legislates. Moses serves as the magistrate and organizes the implementation of both the legislative and judicial functions.

The second lesson offers the criteria for choosing leaders who are also judicial officers. They must be men of wealth. They must be honest men whose gains are not ill-gotten. They must be trustworthy that they will implement what they decide. They must also be God-fearing.

There is a third lesson hidden among all the other recommendations. It is a statement in verse 19. “You represent the people before God.” Moses has his position, not as the undisputed leader of or over the Israelites, but as the representative of the Israelites before God. His primary job is not top-down, even though he performs that function; it is bottom-up – to represent the people. Thus, we get the first glimmerings of democracy as well as the first steps towards efficient government and the requirement that the men who make up that government be chosen on the basis of a very lofty set of values.

Note the following. The values are eternal and unchanging and are delivered from on high, from above. The lesson about efficiency comes from the side, from a foreigner. Though he came to respect the power of the Israeli god, there is nothing said about his conversion as Rashi implied. The Israelites had to remain open to others, non-Israelite lights.

If authority in values come from above, ideas on how to organize the system of authority came from the outside and by means of a non-Israelite agent. The Israelis had to remain open to outside influences. Third, interests flowed from below and Moses’ prime job was to represent the people as a whole to God. Not special interests. But everyone’s interests. The nation’s interest.

We now have the basic skeleton for a polity.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Deuteronomy 25:17-19.Dignity versus Humiliation.22.02.13

Deuteronomy 25:17-19 Dignity versus Humiliation 22.02.13

Parashah Ki Teitzei


Howard Adelman

This week Rabbi Dow Marmur wrote a blog on two meta-narratives of Jews. One is remembering Amalek, the arch-enemy of Jews and the epitome of enemies of Jews in all ages. For Netenyahu, Iran is a contemporary Amalek. In the second meta-narrative, Jews are commanded not to forget they were strangers in the land of Israel. Jews are obligated to treat strangers in their midst – Palestinian Israelis — with respect and dignity. Rabbi Marmur was hopeful that the new government of Israel, whenever it is formed, will both remember Amalek when dealing with Iran and not forget we were once strangers in Israel in fulfilling our obligations to Arab Israelis. (The blog is included at the end of my blog.)

Leaving aside the implications for the Israeli government, I accept Rabbi Marmur’s interpretation and want to go on and show how the two processes are interconnected.

The relevant passages are as follows:

17 Remember what Amelek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt —

18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

19 Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:17-19)

Before the paradoxical command both to remember Amalek and to blot out his memory, before these verses 17-19 in chapter 25 of Deuteronomy, we read instructions about how to remember Amalek and blot out his memory. The lessons are taught in the way we should respond to four different iconic types of situations.

If we go backwards from the verses referring to Amalek, the fourth instruction is not to cheat when using weights and measures (25: 13-15). If one employs perfect and just weights, then your days in Israel will be long. This is a section Rabbi Marmur could also have cited with respect to the obligations to treat Palestinian Israelis fairly.

13 Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. 14 Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. 15 You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. 16 For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.

What has this to do with Amalek? As I read the four ways to respond, we have to begin with ourselves. If we remember that it is we who make Amalek possible, then we must start with our own behaviour and ensure that we are honest, transparent and fair. This will mean that in the external world, under the heavens, Amalek’s memory will be blotted out and we will not have to deal with him.

The third section is a tale about two men engaged in combat. A wife of one of the combatants, to help her husband in battle, seizes his opponent `by the secrets`.

11 If two men get into a fight with each other, and the wife of one comes up to save her husband from his antagonist and puts out her hand and seizes him by his genitals, 12 you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.

As a consequence, the community is instructed to have no pity and cut off her hand. Why cut off her hand? She was just helping her husband out. There are three reasons. She upset the fairness of the battle. Second, she did so by grabbing the opponent and presumably temporarily disabling him. Third, and most important, she did so in a way that brought shame on him and humiliated him in public by grabbing his genitals.

The second and longest section deals with the obligation of one brother to marry his brother`s wife if his brother dies and leaves his wife without a child in what is called a “levirate marriage”; the brother is obligated to co-habit with her so that she can bear a child and so that his brother`s name can be preserved in Israel. If the surviving brother refuses, the sister-in-law, in the presence of the elders, removes his shoe, spits in his face and humiliates him so that his house is thereafter remembered as “the house of him that had his shoe loosed” (v. 10). The loss of shoes denotes a loss of dignity, hence ‘The House of Loose Shoes.’

While in the fourth and third cases discussed above (examples 1 & 2), one is to guard against being humiliated and to be punished if you unfairly humiliate another, in this case, you are instructed to humiliate another in public because that other failed in his sacred duties to his brother. If you use unfair weights, the future of your family will be marked by humiliation. If you do not fulfill the duties owed to your barren widowed sister-in-law, your family also will bear the mark of shame when they are known as the "House of Loose Shoes".

The first section deals with the punishment to be meted out to the wicked in proportion to the degree of wickedness by beating him on the back, but no more than 40 stripes “lest being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes” (v. 2).

1.When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. 2 If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, 3 but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes.

Then verse four follows which seems to have nothing to do with the verses that precede or follow. Verse 4 reads: "For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope." He who reaps is entitled to the rewards of his work, including a salary, rest days and vacation pay. And that includes those who witness to the faith.

That seems to have nothing to do with dignity and humiliation. What could an instruction about not muzzling an ox while it is threshing have to do with a brother avoiding his duty to his barren widowed sister-in-law and suffering the humiliation for that failure? What does it have to do with avoiding humiliating a person being punished by ensuring that the punishment is proportionate to the crime and not excessive? All the other example cases are about rights, duties and distributive justice.

I think the explanation is the following. The instruction can be about treating oxen fairly or about respecting the owner of the ox which you have borrowed or not working the ox to death, but it is unlikely to be about the duty to pay your church or synagogue ministers or missionaries. The plain reading of the text essentially says that you should not put a muzzle on a hardworking animal pulling the thresher. The ox is doing the work and should be entitled to eat. This may certainly be a humane gesture and/or a contractual one. But it is mainly a message that even a yoked animal needs to be respected and, as such, is a postscript to the first section.

The four examples offered can be summarized as follows:

Crime or Duty Punishment Rationale 1. -ve Wickedness Up to 39 lashes Proportionality Limits 2. +ve Impregnate brother`s widow If failure, loosen shoe, spit in face & diachronic penalty = House of Loose Shoes Humiliation in perpetuity No limit 3. -ve Wife humiliating her husband’s opponent Cut off the hand No pity Limit 4. +ve Fair weights and measure Long life in the land of promise Rewards No Limit

All four examples have to do with “brothers”, sometimes fraternal at other times "brother used in a metaphorical sense to express loyalty. There are limits to punishing the wicked lest you forget to treat him as your brother, i.e. lest you humiliate him and treat him as even less than an animal for even an animal needs to be treated with respect. The second tale has to do with two brothers who live together and are very close and, therefore, a surviving brother assumes obligations to the other brother`s widow if the latter dies without progeny. In the third case, two men are fighting; they may be the iconic Cain and Abel. However, under no circumstances is the wife entitled to interfere to try to disable the opponent of her husband and certainly not by grabbing her husband’s opponents by his balls. That would not just be an improper practice but a humiliating one as well. The fourth is a commandment of fairness and to regard all others as brothers.

The four cases can be represented as follows:

Brothers vs Enemies 1. Wicked are brothers – limits to punishment 3. Sworn enemies cannot be treated as brothers by the wife of one. Particular and Universal Brotherhood 2. Blood Brothers 4. All men brothers

The respective punishment and reward with respect to humiliation can be represented as follows:

1. Physical punishment of wicked (lashes) but no humiliation.

2. Obligation not to humiliate widowed sister-in-law, and if you do, she can humiliate you and your progeny and brand your family as The House of Loose Shoes.

3. Obligation not to humiliate oneself (and one`s family name) by interfering in a battle between your husband and an opponent by humiliating the opponent.

4. Obligation to maintain honour for one`s family name in perpetuity.

We have two positive duties: impregnating your childless widowed sister-in-law and using fair weights and measures. We have two prohibitions: not engaging in wickedness and, directed at women, not humiliating your husband’s opponent.

What is the relationship between this quadratic structured first part of the chapter and the duty not to forget Amalek? Recollect the three verses 17-19. You are first obligated to remember Amalek`s deeds. He killed three groups of fleeing Israelites who were in the rear: those who were slow; those who were enfeebled or handicapped, and those who were weary and faint. He killed the straggler, the frightened, and the weak and weary. You cannot allow Amalek to humiliate the weakest of your tribe and attack Israel at its soft spot. The message is clear; face your enemies with pride and strength and don`t forget Amalek so that Amalek will not earn favour with heaven.

The text is ambiguous whether Amalek was not God-fearing or whether the Israelites were lo yarei elohim, not God-fearing but I believe the whole text suggests the latter. First, if Amalek was not God-fearing, why would he attack Israel at its weakest point and in so cowardly a way. Second, the whole chapter is primarily about the Israelites disciplining themselves without engaging in disreputable practices and thereby incorporating Amalek within themselves. The latter is the real danger.

The injunction not to humiliate the other is not done just for the respect one must show the other. It is necessary for the respect one owes oneself. Douglas Cubbison in an abridged version of his book, The American Northern Theater Army in 1776: The Ruin and Reconstruction of the Continental Force, described how General Gates transformed a demoralized and undisciplined force, by applying the rule of 39 stripes to laggards, disobedient and undisciplined soldiers, literally whipping them into shape as a fighting force. The lesson to remember Amalek is to remember to engage in certain practices so one would not have to face Amalek and fear defeat. A healthy society does not humiliate its own by leaving the weak behind. A healthy and strong society is disciplined and respectful.

The common theme is humiliation as well as discipline and maintaining your physical strength and fighting capability. You must always respect the dignity of the other and maintain respect for your own dignity. In the Mishna (Avot 3:11) we are told that if you embarrass another person publicly, you lose your share in the world-to-come.The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b) notes: “Whoever shames his fellow-man in public is considered as if he shed blood.” At another point, the Babylonian Talmud advises, “It is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to embarrass a fellow human being in public.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kethubot 67b). (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 3:1) (Cf. Hershey Friedman `Human Dignity in Jewish Law`…/HumanDignityJewish.htm) This entails not torturing your captives though they must be punished in proportion to each crime with a maximum penalty. Do not appease your enemy either. Treat the strangers who are not your co-nationals with respect and fairness.

Remembering Amalek is not obsessing with the evil other but preparing yourself through these general precepts so that Amalek can be forgotten. In Plato`s Laws, the Athenian stranger says that enemy combatants are not protected by the law. If that enemy insults your god and robs your temples, engrave his deeds on his face and hands so that he can bear these as a permanent mark of shame. And beat the enemy without limits. The treatment is the very opposite of the injunction against torture in the Torah or ensuring that punishments are proportionate to the crime committed. Always remember he is a brother. The punishment must not only be proportionate to the crime but proportionate to the person. The person must know always that you do own him and that your respect him as another human being. Never punish in anger. And never humiliate him.

Rabbi Dow Marmur`s blog follows.


In addition to the weekly portion, a second text will be read in synagogues this Shabbat. It’s about remembering Amalek, the arch-enemy of our Israelite ancestors and the epitome of all our enemies through the ages. The implication is that though the Biblical Amalekites lived a long time ago, their heirs are still here to harm us.

The message is particularly poignant in Israel today. It’s often articulated by the prime minister when he insists that the Iranian regime is today’s Amalek and that unless Israel deals with it resolutely, it and its Jewish citizens will be in mortal danger. The Holocaust is often invoked in this context, more for effect than accuracy.

But several potential coalition partners in the government Netanyahu is now trying to form don’t seem to want to deal only with the Iranian threat. They also pay attention to the social issues and seem to suggest that right values are as essential for Israel’s survival as military prowess. These include the reduction of the growing inequality in Israeli society and peace with the Palestinians. Their primary proof text wouldn’t be “Remember Amalek” but, rather, “Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” which obligates us to treat all human beings as God’s creatures.

The Amalek reference sees Israel as being in a state of crisis; the reference to remembering the stranger points to what theologians call covenant, the eternal bond between God and God’s people with the obligations this entails and a life style to match.

Yossi Klein Halevi, the gifted journalist and speaker, drew attention to these opposing texts and their implications at a conference last Tuesday at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem of which he’s a Fellow. The conference was aptly called, “From Crisis to Covenant: Rethinking a Narrative for Israel.” Whereas the political Right is prone to cite the Amalek passage of crisis and the Left the covenantal references to having been strangers, Halevi believes that both are equally essential for Israel’s future.

Those who live by one text instead of both are under suspicion. Thus though nobody is in a position to challenge the analysis that Iran constitutes an existential threat to Israel, the almost exclusive stress on it may also be a convenient way of ignoring the many serious internal problems the country is facing. Similarly, to speak primarily about the price of cottage cheese and the non-payment of taxes by the rich, important though it is, may be a way of closing one’s eyes to even more urgent issues.

There’re indications that, despite his own apparent fixation with Iran, Netanyahu would like to form a government that reflects both texts. That’s probably why the first coalition agreement to be signed is with Tzipi Livni, who has put the so-called two-state solution in the centre of her platform. Netanyahu’s apparent wish to include Sheli Yachimovitch and her Labour Party’s social agenda may be of the same ilk.

That’s a positive development. It’s tempting to be cynical and say that as it’s much easier to point to a crisis than to seek to work out what it means to live up to our covenant with God by heeding Jewish teachings about the dignity of all humans and the primacy of peace and coexistence. However, cynicism, though often unavoidable, can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence the need for balance and proportion.

It makes for hope that, even at times of crisis, those elected to govern the Jewish state won’t abandon Jewish values by making Amalek the only defining text.

Jerusalem 20.2.13 Dow Marmur

[Tag Deuteronomy 25, torture, humiliation, Amalek, dignity]

Parashat T`tzavveh.Deuteronomy.Torture.Humiliation 25.17.19 (RA’s comments).doc