23rd March 2024, Shabbat Zachor – Mike Frankl

My sermon today has two strands, because, as well as starting to read the Book of Leviticus, it is also Shabbat Zachor and this I have found to be very challenging. Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance, occurs today because tomorrow is Purim and it has its own special Torah reading from Deuteronomy Chapter 25. This consists of a command by God to remember the attack by Amalek after the Israelites left Egypt, and a requirement in verse 19 “to blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget!”.

Our Haftarah from 1 Samuel describes the instructions to King Saul to completely and utterly destroy Amalek. Saul and his army defeated Amalek and his soldiers, but he spared King Agag and the best sheep and cattle and other things of value and therefore failed to completely follow God’s instructions, for which he was punished.

It is suggested in the Talmud that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek. Personally, I am not a Purim enthusiast. I am all for saving and protecting the Jewish people, but being a middle class liberal, I cannot accept or understand the desire and need to destroy thousands of other human beings.

This year in particular none of us can avoid thinking about the events of October 7th – the terrible attack on Israelis, the violence, the deaths, the capture and retention of hundreds of hostages and the subsequent and ongoing response by Israel in Gaza. Perhaps those who lead Hamas are indeed descendants of Amalek, who must therefore be destroyed, but I cannot in all conscience apply the same thinking to all of the Palestinians in Gaza, and I sincerely hope that the Israeli government is aware that more and more people are saying that this is what they appear to be doing. I find the daily news from Gaza horrifying and tragic. In general, it is really hard to find an accurate source of news, and the impact of social media on younger people is really quite frightening. It also feels that Israel is being demonised and being highlighted as carrying out an unjust war, but at the same time, larger and worse conflicts carry on in Sudan, Ukraine and the Yemen with hardly a mention on mainstream news. Not that any war is really justifiable. As a Jew who believes that we have a responsibility to look after the less well off in society, those with mental health problems, the homeless and the hungry, I cannot accept that there isn’t a better or different way for the Israeli Government to carry out the fight with Hamas.

I would like to finish this part of my sermon by reading a statement on Rafah, written by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, which was published on the 13th of February. I quote:

“These words are written out of deep concern over Israel’s potential actions in Rafah, making it impossible to remain silent. The calculated barbarity and strategic cruelty of Hamas’s military, and the presence of its forces in tunnels beneath Rafah, are beyond doubt. It suits them, and Iran, cynically to provoke Israel in the most appalling ways, then blame it for the awful consequences.

But over a million Palestinian civilians, many already in flight from the north of Gaza, are now trapped with nowhere to go. In countless references, Judaism has, throughout its history, stressed our duty to refugees and the helpless. How can we be unmoved by their grief and unbearable suffering?

President Biden has warned that without a credible humanitarian plan to evacuate civilians safely, attacking Rafah is unconscionable. This must include safe shelter, food, water and medical aid. Even then, what would the exodus of a million hapless people look like? Egypt, while bluntly refusing to accept any Palestinian refugees, warned Israel of dire consequences, including the possible termination of the peace treaty between the countries. We all have the fate of the hostages in our hearts, and we saw the joyous pictures of two who were rescued not long ago and reunited with their families. But, as thousands of protesting Israelis have said, a major attack on Rafah is unlikely to be the best way to bring the release of many.

I write out of horror at what may ensue and its potential consequences in unimaginable suffering. I write out of dread at the future hatred this is likely to engender, and out of fear that these actions may haunt us, and the good name of Israel and the Jewish People, for generations.

I write in prayer that another political path forward will be forged, and that the God of Israel and all humanity will help us find a way to a peaceful resolution, with security for Israel and a viable future for the civilian population of Gaza, without any more appalling bloodshed.”

By contrast, the book of Leviticus has its name because it is regarded as the book for the Levites, the priests in the Temple. The first part of the book is about the unique privileges and responsibilities of the priests, many of which are about sacrifices. The second part, from Chapter 17 onwards, is known as the ‘Holiness Code’ and gives instructions on how to behave to all the Israelites.vThe Hebrew name for this book is Vayikra. It begins “Vayikra el Moshe, vyadebare Adonai aylav may’ohel laymore” – ‘and God called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting’. God then goes on to describe in detail how an animal should be offered for a sacrifice, whether it’s a bull, a goat or a bird and in even more detail about how the animal should be slaughtered and dealt with by the priests. Chapter two deals with an offering that is made from flour.The Hebrew word for offering a sacrifice, “korban” literally means coming close to God.

Today Jen read from Chapter 5 – a complicated set of instructions relating to legal and ritual violations. Today, we might describe these as ethical or moral issues. Acts such as withholding information from a court of law, which would change the court’s view of the case and could cause someone else to get into trouble, undermine the legal system as a whole or change the court’s view of the person withholding information. This first section also covers touching an impure thing such as the carcass of an impure beast, whether knowingly or unknowingly, or touching a human impurity or uttering a swear word.

In all of these situations, when the person realised their guilt, they were required to confess their sin and make expiation by providing an offering as a sacrifice. The offering would depend on their wealth: a bull, goat, turtle-dove or some flour. The purpose of the offering, the korbanot, is bring the person closer to God.

The American Union of Reform Judaism has a D’var Torah on Korbanot This is part of it: “Understanding the concept of korbanot gives us concrete ways to live our lives. To the Israelites, the Temple was the place where God resided. Making offerings at the Temple was their way to get closer to God. Certainly, the sacrifices were not easy to make. The animals had to be slaughtered in severe and brutal ways. Ripping limbs, pinching off heads, tearing animals open, dashing blood against the altar, and dipping fingers into blood don’t sound like pleasant activities. Although it is not possible to make sacrifices at the Temple today, that doesn’t exclude us from having to put forth an effort to bring ourselves closer to God — making our own korbanot. We can draw closer to God if we act in a God-like way. Our practice of benevolence is shown through kindness, compassion, generosity, and goodwill for the earth and its inhabitants.”

The study of Torah and prayer are other means that bring us closer to God. They allow us to act in a God-like way. And this behaviour is relatively easy when you don’t live in a warzone. It feels much harder to get things morally right when you do. And I certainly don’t have the answers.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides argued that sacrifices were an early form of worship given to the Jewish people so that they could learn how to serve God without feeling different from all other peoples, who did perform sacrifices. Slowly, Maimonides says, the people learned that “the sacrificial service is not the primary objective of the commandments but that prayer is a better means of obtaining nearness to God.” Agreeing with the early Rabbis, Maimonides emphasized that the superiority of prayer is that “it can be offered everywhere and by every person.”

Today korbanot can consist of all forms of tzedakah and the following of mitzvot (commandments). Studying Torah and attending prayer services also move us to the closer connection with God that we so desire. Whether we have sinned or not, whether we have done so intentionally or unintentionally, we may still have the desire to move closer to God, to offer our own korbanot. To do so, we must make an effort to show kindness, compassion, generosity, and goodwill even if that is not easy. At the same time, we should try to study Torah and attend services. As Pirkei Avot states, Mitzvah goreret mitzvah: The more good we do, the more good we do. This is really a model for life. In a manner of speaking sacrifices are alive and well: They just have to be slightly redefined.

I hope that all those participating in Purim tomorrow, while celebrating the survival of Esther, Mordechai and the Jewish people, think of the innocent Palestinians, the loss of their homes, dignity and privacy and how at some point probably in the distant future, we might be able to help them rebuild their lives.