NCJWA Council Shabbat 2021

Shabbat Zachor 2021 – D’var Torah

To our honoured Rabbi/s, Presidents and other Distinguished members of the Community – which includes everyone here today.

For nearly 100 years, the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia has marked Shabbat Zachor as Council Shabbat. This year, I’d like to share some thoughts about being a Jewish woman in a post-lockdown COVID world and our hopes for Jewish women across the country in these rather unusual times.

Let me begin by acknowledging that we are meeting on the lands of Indigenous Australians, lands which were taken without treaty. It is important to take time to pay our deepest respect and gratitude to Indigenous Elders past and present across this land.

The genocide of people on this beautiful land has left an ugly scar. An intergenerational trauma persists through the Indigenous community. Many of us are second and third generation Holocaust survivors carry our own form of inter-generational trauma. The history of the Shoah sits in our veins. As Jews, have a choice as to how to deal with this. We can sit and live in fear, we can challenge this and be kind to ourselves or we can use our experience of the past to take action to heal the world.

It is the belief of the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia that our experiences are a call to respond to injustice wherever it rears its ugly head.

There are three different threads of Jewish experience that are visible this Shabbat. Together these assist us with the type of action we need to take, individually and as a community, to redress the injustice in our midst:

First, there is Amalek, who is the reason behind Shabbat Zachor in the first place. The hateful Haman was a descendant of Amalek.

Then, there is Queen Esther, who offers us great hope.

Finally there is the Torah reading, Teruma, itself. The parsha is about gifts and offerings we should bring to this world. It offers strategic insight into how we can move forward as a community.

The story of Amalek tells us that in every generation there will be a powerful leader or a source of power that is determined to destroy the Jewish people. The current rise of antisemitism has become even more pronounced since COVID. Blood libels as well as conspiracy theories abound.

An awareness of the threat of Amalek must lead us to be vigilant on behalf of both ourselves and others. For if we are being targeted, it is likely that other minority groups are also being threatened. This week, on Shabbat Zachor, we are reminded that working for racial justice is not just an act of good neighbourly behaviour, but is an act of self-preservation.

Queen Esther led a comfortable, assimilated life. However, her position was tenuous because of the very fact that she was a woman. Her beauty put her at constant risk of attention and male violence. Esther knew that Vashti had been humiliated and summarily dismissed. Yet, despite the danger, she saw that it was her job to take action.

The lesson for us is that the future of the Jewish people depends on being brave. Whatever connection we have had with the community in the past, whatever our form of Judaic prayer or ritual is, we all have the power to stand up for ourselves and for others. 

For NCJWA, Esther represents the woman we can all aspire to be; a woman who was not afraid to stand up for herself. Prior to her powerful actions, she engaged in fasting and prayer. She sought advice and worked with others. But in the end, she knew that Jewish continuity depended on her. Just as continuity depends on each of us.

Parshat Teruma offers a detailed inventory of elements of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle built in the desert to carry the Tablets of the Law. This was to become the heart of the Jewish people. This was the place where the Lord would dwell on the journey to the Promised Land. Building the Mishkan was an act of love, of beauty, of great craftsmanship and of dedication.

What is significant here is that the building of the Mishkan was not restricted to experienced builders, to leaders, to distinguished members of B’nei Yisrael. Rather, everyone – men and women, young and old, infirm and able-bodied – had the opportunity to contribute. Most of the time when money is raised for the coffers of the king or community, it is a set fee that is compulsory. But when it comes to contributing to the very essence of the community – to building who we are and how we want to be – every person can volunteer to give what they can.

To build the community, every bit of contribution is needed. The Baal Shem Tov has said that every Jew is a letter of the Torah, so that if one is rubbed out or misshapen, the whole enterprise fails. Every person – every single person – is needed to contribute. If anyone is excluded then the community suffers. So we need to ask, whenever we have a gathering: who is not in the room? Is there someone who needs a lift, needs support, needs facilitation to be included?

The second side comes from the line “They shall make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in them” (Exodus 25:8). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, writes that this tells us that “the Divine Presence lies not in a building but in its builders; not in a physical place but in the human heart.” Covenant & Conversation: Exodus, p192.

On behalf of NCJWA, I ask you to:

Firstly, recognise Amalek. The enemy is racism, when one group is being victimised, society declares it to be ok to victimise others.

Secondly, understand that bravery, as seen with Esther, is about standing up for what is right, and dealing with the costs no matter what your circumstances are.

And finally, see that the community is worthy of our love, and ask yourself how can I make a contribution to my community.

If we work together, we can build a worthy community and women must be included at every level of decision-making. Make women feel welcome, count their presence and note their absence when they are not included. The issues confronting women – as well as the issues confronting men – are issues for the whole community. So, let us take these lessons from Shabbat Zachor as both a reminder and a guide.

Shabbat Shalom.

Melinda Jones

Melinda Jones

NCJWA National President

Melinda Jones, the NCJWA National President, is a scholar, feminist, human rights lawyer, disability advocate and Jewish educator who identifies as Modern Orthodox Jew.

She’s engaged in research and social action towards justice for all vulnerable people through law and policy development.

In an earlier life, Melinda taught law and political science at Melbourne, Monash, La Trobe and the University of New South Wales. She was a Senior Lecturer in Law, the Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Journal of Human Rights and the Director of the Australian Human Rights Centre.