Purim: A Sudden Reversal

Parashat Tetzave – Shabbat Zachor

What is the connection between this week’s Torah portion and Purim?

G-d takes ritual roles very seriously. Parashat Tetzave deals almost exclusively with the Kohanim – the priests. The Torah describes in detail their role as intermediaries, the ritual vestments to be worn while in the service of G-d, and how they are to be installed into their new positions.

But there is also a twist in this week’s Torah reading. Purim begins this Saturday night. The Shabbat that precedes Purim is called Shabbat Zachor – the Shabbat of Remembrance. For on this Shabbat, there is an added maftir (a different concluding reading) and a different Haftarah reading because we are to recall the Torah command to blot out the memory of the Amalekites.

The sages recognized the direct connection between the command to blot out the memory of Amalek (Deut. 25:17-19) and Purim. Haman, the chief villain of the Purim story is a descendent of Agag (see Esther 3:1). And we learn from the special Haftarah reading this week (1 Samuel 15:1-34) that this is King Agag, the king of the Amalekites during the reign of King Saul.

Thus, the rabbis maintained that this portion should be read right before Purim because Haman was an Amalekite – a descendent of King Agag. Haman continued the same hatred against the Jewish people as his ancestors, the Amalekites, did. Therefore, Purim is not just a deliverance from Haman the individual, but a deliverance from Amalek.

In her commentary on jewschool.com, Alana Vincent raised an additional interesting question regarding the Torah command to “remember what Amalek did to you … (Deut. 25:17)”:

“What does it mean to remember? How on earth am I supposed to remember something that happened thousands of years ago, to someone else? How can we both remember and blot out the remembrance of Amalek? Why go through such terrible mental contortions at all—isn’t it better to just forget?”

Amalek and Purim represent a clear biblical theme of sudden reversal – when G-d turns everything upside down. After all, with all of this talk of wiping out the Amalekites, and the threatened destruction of the Jewish people mentioned in the book of Esther … why do we celebrate? Why is Purim associated with so much joy? As Alana asks, isn’t it better to just forget?

Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair points out that the only difference between a tragedy and a comedy is the ending. The book of Esther is written in the classic style of a comedy. The whole tragedy is turned upside down, Haman is hung on the enormous gallows he himself built, the Jewish people are saved, thousands of Persians convert to Judaism, and a Jewish girl becomes queen of what is now modern dayIran. The irony of the book should be evident.

And yet, Rabbi Sinclair adds that this is what it will be like with the coming of Messiah. It will be a sudden reversal. “When Mashiach comes, he will come in an instant and things will be turned upside down in a second just like Purim.”

We must always remember … and … never forget. We must never forget our past and struggles, and yet we must remember that redemption is near, for Mashiach is coming.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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2 Responses to Purim: A Sudden Reversal

  1. James says:

    While Purim is an extremely joyous celebration, I’ve always been a little disturbed by the undercurrents of objectification of women and the more “adult” implication of the King’s “beauty pageant” that doesn’t make it into the children’s play. On the other hand, I’ve just read a couple of Jewish commentaries that call it the world’s only interfaith success story and how such a marriage actually benefited Israel.

    I’ve been criticized by Jews including Messianic Jews for being the Gentile half of an interfaith marriage, and while I don’t want to offend anyone, maybe I can take a dual meaning to Purim this year. In addition to celebrating the survival of the Jews against the forces of Haman, maybe I can silently “cheer” just a bit, for those of us who are intermarried, and because of such a union, who share a desire to benefit Israel.

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      James,

      You touch on some important themes that I did not address in this commentary for Shabbat Zachor, but will be addressing in my sermon tomorrow.

      Most people do read this as more of a fun story of G-d’s deliverance and completely skip over some of the exact issues that not only you mention, but even the idea of how exaggerated everything in the book is. That is why for many of these reasons it was almost not included within the canon. In fact, it is the only (now) canonical book not even attested to in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

      Your take on intermarriage here is interesting. I am sorry you have had to deal with such negative reactions and assumptions on this.

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