June 21, 2024
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Legendary British financier, banker, activist and philanthropist, Sir Moses (Moshe Chaim) Montefiore, z”l, was not only the beloved rosh ha-kahal of the British Jewish community, he was an influential leader who promoted economic development, education and building for the Jewish People worldwide.

Though not particularly observant early in life, after a transformative visit to Eretz Yisrael in 1827, Montefiore was spiritually inspired and committed himself to the practice of Yiddishkeit and Jewish activism. Later—having gained unprecedented access to halls of power and influence—he was moser nefesh (completely selfless) for his Jewish brethren as he represented his people before world leaders, including the Pope and Czar of Russia.

On his way to meet the Czar to intercede regarding a particular gezerah, an evil antisemitic decree, he was traveling in a stately coach accompanied by private security and surrounded by an entourage. As he passed through a village on the outskirts of Moscow, a small group of Russian peasant children threw stones toward Montefiore’s coach and shouted derisively, “Zhid! Zhid!” Immediately, he instructed his coachman to stop and bring the thuggish kids to him. The coachman jumped at them, grabbed a couple by the scruffs of their necks and hauled them toward Montefiore’s seat.

“Little children,” he sighed, stepping down from the coach to look the frightened perpetrators in the eyes, “back in England, I am referred to by my honorary title of ‘Sir,’ and around the world, powerful men stand for me and address me as ‘Lord Mayor.’ But know this: no honorific that I have ever received is as meaningful a praise as the one you have just given me by calling me a ‘Zhid,’ a Jew. Thank you!”

Montefiore then smiled and handed each child a golden coin before returning to his seat, and saying, “Thank you for reminding me who I am.”

~

This Shabbos, we read Parshas Zachor, a reading which infuses us with the biblical mitzvah to bring to mind the senseless hatred that drove Amalek to attack the weak and infirm among us. Without an intention to benefit from our land, property or belongings, Amalek was simply driven by bloodthirst and the most ancient form of hatred. Publicly reading this parsha in advance of Purim threads a narrative, connecting the motives of Amalek with those of Haman, as well as insisting that we recognize the relevance of this mitzvah for us today.

וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן משֶׁה אֵת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹקים לְמשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ

“And Yisro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe heard all that Elokim did for Moshe and Yisrael, His people …” (Shemos, 18:1)

Rashi points out that Yisro heard about two major events that made an impression on him to the point that it changed his life. These were Kriyas Yam Suf, the splitting of the Sea, and the war with Amalek. An additional opinion expressed in Gemara (Zevachim, 116a)—by Rebbi Elazar HaModa’i—is that Yisro also heard about Matan Torah, and this was the inspiration for him to convert and cast his fate with Am Yisrael. The seminal events of Kriyas Yam Suf and Matan Torah express the two main aspects of our chosenness as a people: the revealed love for us at the sea, and our intimacy with Hashem in the revelation at Mount Sinai. Yisro also came to understand the reality of what it means to be a Yid, that there is such a force as Amalek and a price-tag to chosenness.

Antisemitism, in fact, serves as a reminder of who we are, that we are—indeed—different from all the other nations. When we are singled out, we are stimulated to question what it is that sets us apart. And this gives us the opportunity to reassert our commitment to the spiritual and international obligations we carry.

Rav Joseph Soloveitchik maintained that those who sow hatred of Am Yisrael in the world are the disciples and ideological descendants in the spiritual lineage of Amalek. Today, the dramatic surge in anti-Semitism worldwide makes Shabbos Zachor all the more relevant:

מִלְחָמָה לַה׳ בַּעֲמָלֵק מִדֹּר דֹּר

“Hashem is at war with Amalek from generation to generation,” (Shemos, 17:16).

There is sweetness in being empowered as active partners with the Ribbono Shel Olam, and knowing that we are not alone. Whether it emanates from the ideological right, the “woke” political left or the politicians in the United Nations—or whether it is expressed on social media or even on the streets of our own homeland—we can stand tall in the face of our enemies’ derision and hate. We can stand with our people, with holy pride in who we are, and with joy and faith in our purpose in this world.

“Mordechai lo yichra, lo yishtachaveh—Mordechai did not kneel and did not bow,” to anti-Jewish powers. Rather he stood tall in joyful defiance—unabashed of his Yiddishkeit—and unafraid to display religious symbols and behaviors, even in a time of great physical threat.

Parshas Zachor, thus, prepares us for simchas Purim, when kimu v’kiblu haYehudim, when the Jews established and accepted their historical mission. We, too, are prepared to reassert our desire to live with Torah, as well as our willingness to make sacrifices in maintaining our Jewish identity. It is this desire and willingness that becomes a source of celebration and joy on Purim—and every day. Perhaps this year, while distributing d’mei Purim, we ought to flip a coin or two to all the haters out there, and thank them for helping us to remember …

~

The story is told that Montefiore was once at a dinner party, seated next to a known
antisemite. This man told Montefiore that he had just returned from a trip to a distant country, “where they have neither pigs nor Jews.” Montefiore quipped: “In that case, you and I should go there together … so it will have a sample of each!”


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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