Thoughts to Ponder Number 39
8 Adar Sheini, 5760; March 15, 2000
The Birth of Amalek,
The Making of an Enemy

Judaism's major enemy is the nation of Amalek. This nation is the personification of all evil, racism and Antisemitism. Amalek was seared into the Jewish consciousness as the first enemy the people of Israel encountered after the crossing of the Red Sea. The Amalekites attacked the Jews several times and brought much disaster and destruction. It was not only the fact that Amalek dared to fight the Israelites, but also the strategy which Amalek used which showed Amalek's moral bankruptcy. It attacked the Israelites from the back, first focusing on the weak and tired people, then drew Israel into immoral sexual practices and, with tactics similar to later forms of Antisemitism, operated in secrecy.

In later days, it was Haman, the Amalekite, known from the Purim story, who once more showed the evil intentions of this nation. Only through a miracle was Israel saved from the hands of this wicked personality.

Who was Amalek? The Torah tells us that the first Amalek was the son of Esau's son Eliphaz (Bereshith 36:2). He was the eponymous ancestor of the Amalekite people. Eliphaz had taken a concubine by the name of Timna, the sister of Lotan (Bereshith 36:12) who was a son of Seir the Horite, dwelling in the land of Seir where Esau had settled. Timna then became pregnant and gave birth to a son called Amalek.

The Talmud inquires why she married Eliphaz and provides us with an unprecedented statement: "Timna desired to become a proselyte, so she went to Avraham, Yitschak and Yaacov, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz, the son of Esau, saying: "I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation. From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have repulsed her." (Sanhedrin 99b)

This talmudic statement is difficult to understand. It is, after all, unclear why the forefathers refused to take her under their wings and why they did not allow her to convert into the Jewish people especially when we are informed that they went out of their way to convert as many people as possible (See Rashi on Bereshith 12:5). Most remarkable is the fact that the Sages were not afraid to point their fingers in the direction of our Patriarchs. Their commitment to truth outdid their love for the Patriarchs. They could have suppressed this story, or they could have stated that Timna was indeed unworthy. The fact that they did not take that road shows their integrity and uncompromising objectivity when truth demands it. We do not know of another tradition which has shown such integrity when it dealt with its heroes. What is even more surprising is that they considered the refusal by our Patriarchs to accept Timna into Judaism as the raison d'etre why Israel later would be afflicted by the offspring of the first Amalek.

This reminds us of a statement by Ramban when he discusses the reasons why the Arab nations have shown so much repulsion for the Jewish people. After Hagar has become pregnant from Avraham and is now looking down on Sara (who could not become pregnant), Sara complains to Avraham about her. "Then Avraham said to Sara: 'See, your handmaid is in your hands, do to her that which is good in your eyes.' Then Sara was hard on her and she (Hagar) fled from before her." (Bereshith 16:6) Ramban's comment is most telling: "Sara. our mother, sinned in dealing harshly with her handmaid and Avraham, too, by allowing her to do so. God heard her (Hagar's) afflictions and gave her a son who was destined to be a lawless person, who would bring suffering on the seed of Avraham and Sara with all kinds of affliction."

In later days it was Rabbi Shmuel Mohiliwer, rabbi of Bialystock, one of the great leaders of the Hibbath Zion movement who made a similar comment when the Turkish government was about to banish from the Jewish Settlements those Russian Jews who had moved to the country but had not taken Ottoman citizenship. He cried out and said: "It is because of 'Drive out this handmaiden (Hagar) and her son.' ( 21:10) that the Muslims - the children of Yishmael - the son of Hagar, would now cast out the sons of Sara from our land."

Once more we are confronted with an uncompromising commitment to truth. Even when running the risk of putting our spiritual heroes into a compromising light, the Sages did not shrink from criticizing the Patriarchs. And, once more, we are confronted with a daring statement that because of this, Jews thousands of years later still encounter the hostility of their enemies.

On another occasion, the Sages again spoke of the injustice done to the ancestors of Haman. They stressed that much of Haman's hatred for Jews resulted from the way Yacov had dealt with his brother Esav. On the words in the Megilla: "And Mordechai understood all that was done, and Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes. He went out into the midst of the city and cried a loud and bitter cry." (4:1,2) the Midrash Rabba dares to make the following observation: "One bitter cry did Yacov cause Esau to cry, as it says: 'When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried an exceedingly loud and bitter cry' (Bereshith 27:34), and it was paid back to him (Yacov) in Shushan when his offspring (Mordechai) cried a loud and bitter cry (because of the great trouble which Haman the offspring of Amalek caused towards the Jews.") Clearly, here as well, the Sages point to the fact that it was the injustice done to Esav by Yacov (by "stealing" his blessings of the first-born) which caused the Jews so much pain at the hands of Haman.

Why, indeed, did the Sages emphasize this injustice by our forefathers? Why not keep quiet? No doubt they did not want to justify the Antisemitism of the Amalekites or the Arab nations. Neither did they want to embarrass the Patriarchs, knowing quite well that they were men of great spirituality.

We believe that a careful look in the Torah may provide us with the answer. In Devarim (25.19), the Torah demands that Jews "should erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven, thou shall not forget." As is well known, this commandment seems to be a paradox: How can one erase the memory of Amalek if one is not allowed to forget what he did?

However, it is very possible that the Torah hints here not only to the monstrous deeds of Amalek, but also to the injustice which was done by our forefathers when dealing with Esav and Timna. "Blot out the memory of Amalek" may quite well mean that we are obligated to uproot from within ourselves the ways in which our ancestors dealt with the ancestors of Amalek. "Do not forget that this behavior caused ongoing pain to your forefathers." In other words, the Torah teaches us to erase Amalek's memory by making sure that no such nation will ever appear again. This can only be accomplished when we do not repeat the mistakes of our great forefathers. People create their own enemies and Jews have to teach themselves and others to prevent this by all means.

This, however, can not be done once and for all. It is a constant demand which should never be forgotten.

The earlier critical observations by our sages are, therefore, most crucial. By emphasizing the injustice done by our forefathers and the disastrous repercussions which followed they gave us the means to fulfill the mitzvah of blotting out Amalek's memory.

Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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