Weekly Torah portion: Shabbat Zachor

Torah portion Tuesdays: Shabbat Zachor

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod humorously breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.

Is there any better feeling in the world than turning the tables on a bully? Having a second chance at your nemesis, but this time, making all the right moves?

This week’s Torah portion provides the satisfaction you’re looking for.

Actually, most of the fun this week doesn’t lie in the actual Torah reading itself, but rather in the haftarah that’s read. The haftarah, as any bar or bat mitzvah student is painfully aware, is the additional reading from the Prophets that is matched up with each week’s Torah portion. And this week, in addition to the regular Torah portion, which will continue the bloody discussion of animal sacrifices, we read another excerpt from a second Torah scroll that we take out during services.

This passage begins with the Hebrew word zachor, meaning “remember,” and it’s why this week is referred to as “Shabbat Zachor.” It’s also always the Shabbat right before Purim.

So what are remembering?

When the Israelites were wandering around the desert, they would often come across other tribes that lived there, and often would have to go to war against them. Sounds awful, but that was life back then. However, there was one tribe that was so awful, so nasty, so vile, so — you get the idea — that they never fought fair. They would routinely sneak around the huge mass of Israelites and attack from the rear, where all the old people, little children, and (gasp!) weak women were. This tribe was called Amalek, and to this day, we are commanded to remember what they did to the Israelites and then promptly blot out their name from existence forever. (I guess until next year, when we remember them all over again before blotting them back out.)

They are kind of like the Lord Voldemort of ancient times, but think of them as more of a tribe of Voldemorts — a herd of Voldemortines.

Now fast forward a little bit to this week’s haftarah.

In this seemingly unrelated story, we meet King Saul, who was kind of a sad sack of a king. He is commanded by God to go to war against Amalek (sound familiar?) and wipe them out. And I mean Wipe. Them. Out. Soldiers, women, children, cattle — the whole lot. That’s rather problematic to think about in modern times, but rules and morality were different back then. (See last week’s parsha, for instance).

However, King Saul didn’t follow God’s instructions to the letter. He did order his troops to kill most of the Amalekites, but he allowed their king, named Agag, to live. When God found out (perhaps He was off in the next room working on global warming), He became incensed with Saul’s inaction! God immediately had King Agag executed, and He punished King Saul by taking away his kingship and demoting him to Citizen Saul.

Awesome story — but what’s the takeaway?

On Purim, which always comes very soon after this story, we read about the two famous archenemies Mordechai and Haman. We don’t get much backstory on these guys other than learning that Mordechai descended from the tribe of Benjamin, and Haman descended from the tribe of Agag. In fact, King Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin as well, and Agag was the King of Amalek.

So pitting these two guys against each other again is an epic rematch — it’s the King Saul/King Agag fight all over again. But this time, the Jews are victorious and successfully wipe out Haman and his whole nasty band of no-goodniks. Therefore, the Purim story is the sequel to this week’s haftarah!

It’s like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2!” (Not really.)

I always thought this was the Torah’s brilliant way of showing that you should never stop fighting for what’s right — kind of like Torah karma.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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