Amalek, Al Noor and Linwood Mosques, and Purim

Michael Oberlander


Last Friday, we woke up to the horrific news of massacres at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was another sucker punch to the gut so soon after the killings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. As of now, we know that 50 Muslim worshipers were murdered and dozens more injured during prayers, for no other reason than their faith.

After the desecration of our Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in early 2017, Andrew Rehfeld, our Jewish Federation CEO, told our community that when faced with senseless hatred and violence, we need to “name it, condemn it and do something about it.”

This weekend was Shabbat Zachor (the Sabbath of remembrance), the Shabbat before Purim when Jews around the world read the special section of the Torah where we recall Amalek. 

Who was Amalek? We are told, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 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 … you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19) 

We are told to remember Amalek and blot out Amalek’s memory at the same time. Can there be any greater cognitive dissonance and discomfort than actively remembering and actively working to blot out memory at the same time? No wonder I am still sick to my stomach.

First, we must name it. When the Jewish people left Egypt after hundreds of years as slaves, Amalek attacked the weak and the old who were defenseless. Modern thinkers often draw comparisons to Amalek, such as to those who blow up buses and pizzerias; shoot people during prayer in churches, mosques and synagogues; and launch rockets at civilian populations.  Amalek is the embodiment of evil. What happened last Friday at Al Noor and Linwood mosques was the work of Amalek. It was, simply, evil. 

Second, we must condemn it. The Jewish community in St. Louis and around the world condemned the massacres. Thank you to Rori Picker Neiss, our Jewish Community Relations Council executive director, who quickly organized a letter to be signed by community leadership, and along with Karen Aroesty, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League Heartland, and Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation, brought words of comfort on Friday afternoon to our Muslim neighbors at the Daar Ul-Islam Mosque. As Rori told those gathered: 

“Hundreds of people came out today on a Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. to say to you that you are not alone. We are with you, and we love you.” 

And third, we must do something about it. This week is Purim. We have four mitzvot to do on Purim: Read the Megillah (the Book of Esther), celebrate the Jews’ victory over their enemies through feasting, give gifts of food (and wine) to each other to enhance those celebrations and give gifts to the poor. 

This week, we each have the opportunity to do something about the modern versions of Amalek. I encourage each of you to listen to the Book of Esther on this Purim. And  really read it. It is my favorite book of the Bible because of its complexity and many layers. While addressing the attempted genocide of the Jewish people, it is a lighthearted and even playful story of political intrigue, human drama and theological questions. Much is hidden behind the surface of the story of Esther; ever wonder about the tradition of wearing masks and costumes? But its essence is the story of a noble heroine with the courage to confront authority to counteract an evil decree. It is the story of good vs. evil. It is our story.

So, what can we do when we feel powerless to act (and, I sure feel powerless right now)? We must both remember Amalek and work to blot out evil whenever and wherever it rears its ugliness. We read the story of Esther and celebrate when good overcomes evil, and we do acts of kindness to our friends and less-privileged members of our community. 

Together, we can bring some light to the darkness in which we find ourselves.

Michael Oberlander is chief philanthropy officer for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.