How will we remember our history?


This sermon was originally delivered on 6/19, the day after the tragic mass shooting of people praying at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.

In 2008 I served as the director of Education for Camp Kalsman, a URJ camp located an hour outside of Seattle and had the amazing opportunity to write a letter in the new camp Torah, along with the other staff and campers that summer.

As we explain at each bar/bat mitzvah service, a Sefer Torah, Torah scroll, is written on pieces of parchment (a kosher animal skin, usually a goat or a sheep) by a sofer, a scribe, with a special quill and ink.  Each time that the scribe begins a session of writing, the scribe first had to write down the name “Amalek” on a piece of parchment, and immediately squish it together, creating an ink blot.

This ritual fulfills the commandment, from Deuteronomy, to remember and blot out the name of Amalek, the leader of the Amalekites, the first people to attack the Israelites in the desert.[1]  I was always a bit troubled by this action and commandment.  Why should we work so hard to remember someone who did something so bad to us?  Why not forget his name entirely and work to remember those whom he killed?  I thought about this commandment as the news of yesterday’s tragedy unfolded.

I woke up yesterday morning with great anticipation for Pope Frances’s encyclical about the moral obligation for humans to take responsibility and find a solution for climate change.  However, as I opened the newspaper my hope faded to fear and sadness as I read about the tragic shooting at the Emanuel Church in Charleston.  I, along with so many others, grew horrified that someone would walk into a house of worship, a place in which the late Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney preached love and peace, and just start killing people because of their skin color.  I had to check the date.  It was in fact, still two-thousand fifteen, fifty years after the passage of the civil rights act.  I still wonder what those nine souls were thinking and hoping when they woke up to get ready for church.

As the day wore on, my sadness turned to anger as I continued to check the headlines, they focused more on a now famous person who committed the crimes, rather than memorializing those who died senselessly.  I went from website to website – the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC –each one had the picture of a young white man displayed prominently on their page.  Only the Huffington Post put his picture below a picture of people grieving.  How many of us, sitting here almost 36 hours after the shooting, can name the killer, rather than the victims?  I had to search hard in order to find their names, which we will read before the kaddish.

As I searched our faith for comfort, I turned to the Torah portion, only to find the story of Korach, a man who instigated a rebellion against Moses.  I looked for a connection and I kept repeating Korach’s name in my mind.  Korach, I thought, what am I going to say about Korach in light of this tragedy?  The connection, of course, is that we remember the name Korach.  Just like we are commanded to remember Amalek, we know Korach’s name better than most of Jacob’s sons or his daughter, Dina, better than Jacob’s grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe.  We remember Korach’s name because he was a member of the Israelite community who transgressed, and while he brought punishment to the entire community for spreading a lack of faith, we don’t necessarily blame him directly for the death of the other 250, who, after all, had a choice to follow him.

Yet Amalek did bring death directly to the community of Israelites.  He was the first person to wage war on the Israelites after they left Egypt.  In Deuteronomy, God commands us to “remember what Amalek did to us when we went forth from Egypt, how he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.[2]”  Rashi interprets this verse to mean that we must remember Amalek not only because of his awful deeds but also because he served as a model for all other people who attacked the Israelites since they left Egypt.  His attack opened the Israelites to every further attack.

We remember Amalek, we physically blot out his name, and we remember that he attacked us.  We remember Korach, that he led a rebellion against Moses.  Most of us don’t remember the second, third, or fourth group who battled with the Israelites.  Most of us don’t remember the three other people who rose up with Korach.

But here in America we seem obsessed with remembering the names of those who commit murder instead of the victims.  We don’t just remember the first person who commits a heinous act, act of terrorism or mass murder.  We remember them all.  We don’t talk about their deplorable actions in an effort to teach that we must not follow their actions or allow them to repeat.   Instead we study them with fascination, watch their trials, we make movies about them, and they become household names.  We glorify them instead of remembering the victims.

We know the names of the person who killed twelve people who were watching a movie, we know the name of the brothers who bombed a marathon, we know the name of the person who bombed a city building in Oklahoma, we know the name of the person responsible for 9/11, and now we know the name of the person who shot 8 parishioners and a reverend Thursday morning.

How we, as a society, choose to remember our history reveals more about our sense of morality than what we choose to forget.

God commands us to remember Amalek so that we never again let ourselves become so vulnerable, naïve and arrogant to think that no harm will fall upon us.  We remember Korach so that we never let our personal ego drive the communal agenda.  We remember their actions and we find ourselves outraged.  We must turn this moral outrage into moral courage.

Too many times I find myself on this bima speaking about the need for a change. To change the way our society behaves in order to prevent violence, at schools, movie theaters, and in both public and private spaces.  But first we need to change what we remember.  We need to remember those who were killed for no reason, because all lives matter.  We need to remember not to forget that.  Only when we change what we remember can we change our behavior and be God’s partner for peace.

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים

May God comfort all who grieve among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.  May we one day know only peace.  And may we learn to remember so as to not repeat our mistakes.

[1] Deut. 25:17

[2] Deut. 25:17-18

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