Amalek, according to the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, is the name of the tribe that attacked the Israelites on their way out of Egypt, on the road from slavery to freedom. You can regard this as ancient history. But history is remembered as our story, and in Jewish mythic consciousness, Amalek became a name for hate embodied.
From there, it’s an easy jump – for the fearful and the angry, and for those embodying a fair amount of hatred themselves – to label a present-day enemy as Amalek. The formula “Amalek = ____” transforms a real-world conflict into a metaphysical one, and gives theological sanction to fury. Since Haman is described in the Book of Esther as a descendant of Amalek, and Esther is read on Purim, some misuse the carnival holiday to dress Judaism in a dark costume of rage.
And others remove that awful mask. Twenty-five years ago I heard an interpretation of the Amalek myth that transforms it into moral obligation. It was entirely rooted in rabbinic tradition – and served as proof that the meaning of the text is the responsibility of the interpreter. I remain uncertain that the man from which I heard it was really there. Here’s the story,as I wrote it up sometime afterward.
Around the time of Lebanon War, I had a rented room in the elegant old Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehaviah, and often found an empty seat at an ornate, comfortable synagogue where the regulars included cabinet ministers, top officials and their soon-to-be-Knesset member sons. Each Friday night a different congregant gave a short talk on the week’s portion. On the Sabbath before Purim, I dreaded the sermon. The Book of Esther says Haman was the descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites; the special reading for that Sabbath recalls how Agag’s ancestors ambushed the Israelites in the desert, and commands us to “erase the memory of Amalek.” Given the shul and the mood of the day, I feared a tirade identifying Amalek with a present-day enemy, and drawing ugly conclusions.
A thin, balding figure rose for the sermon. I couldn’t remember ever seeing him in the synagogue before. But as I expected, he roared: “The Torah demands of us, ‘Erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven; thou shalt not forget!'” I sighed.
“But this is a strange commandment,” he went on. “How can we both ‘erase his memory’ and ‘not forget’? And why should the commandment apply specifically ‘in the land that the Lord they God gives thee for an inheritance’?
“To understand, we have to look at how Amalek came into the world. Who was the original Amalek, founder of the nation?
“In Genesis 36, we learn Amalek was the son of Eliphaz, the son of Esau the man who was dispossessed of his birthright and robbed of his paternal blessing by our father Jacob.
“The midrash, in Breshit Rabbah, reveals the price paid for Esau’s hurt and resentment. When Esau learned he had lost the blessing, says the Torah, ‘He cried with a great and exceedingly bitter cry.’ The midrash cites the one other verse in the Bible where those words repeat: Mordechai responds with just such a cry to the decree against Jacob’s children – by Haman the Amalekite.”
I leaned forward. This wasn’t what I’d expected.
“But Amalek inherited resentment from his mother as well,” he said. “The Gemara says in Tractate Sanhedrin: ‘Timna was a daughter of kings… She sought to convert. She came to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they would not accept her. So she went and became the concubine of Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying: It is better to be a handmaid to this nation then a noblewoman elsewhere. From her came forth Amalek, who caused sorrow to Israel. Why? Because they need not have turned her away.’
“And be precise here: Timna was Eliphaz’s concubine. We know the fate of a concubine’s son to be a second-class child, not accepted by the sons of his father’s wives, an outsider, with no place in the will, no inheritance.”
The man at the podium bellowed: “Such was Amalek: the third generation of those we and others turned away, dispossessed, made outsiders – the heir only to resentment and anger. That’s what created the bitter tribe that attacked us in the desert when we were faint and weary.
“Therefore, to erase Amalek’s memory, we must make certain not to recreate our worst enemy. For those to whom we deny their birthright, those whom we discriminate against, leave out they become the new Amalek.
“When does our obligation fall on us most fully? When we are in our land, when we have received our own inheritance. And even here, we cannot simply ‘erase the memory of Amalek’ once and for all; we must guard ourselves eternally: ‘Thou shalt not forget.'”
He slipped back into the pews. I wondered how the self-possessed, powerful men around me had understood his message.
After the service, I couldn’t find the speaker in the crowd. In the months to come, I would look for him in the shul, but I never saw him again.
Reprinted from Seventy Facets: A Commentary on the Torah from the Pages of the Jerusalem Report
© Gershom Gorenberg
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