Parashat Vayishlach: A Warning to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate
The Jews’ most formidable enemy in Biblical times was the nation of Amalek. This nation was, and symbolically still is, the personification of evil, brutality, racism, and antisemitism. What revealed Amalek’s moral bankruptcy was not only that they dared to fight the Israelites, but that this evil nation attacked the Israelites from the back as they fled, focusing on the weak and tired people.
In later days, it was Haman the Amalekite, known from the Purim story, who once again displayed the evil intentions of this nation. Only through a miracle was Israel saved from the hands of this wicked person.
The Torah tells us that the first Amalek was the son of Esau’s son Eliphaz. He was the eponymous ancestor of the Amalekite people. Eliphaz took a concubine by the name of Timna, who then became pregnant and gave birth to Amalek. This means that Amelek was a descendant of Yitzchak and Rivka.
The Talmud inquires why Timna married Eliphaz and provides us with a stunning explanation: Timna desired to become a (Jewish) proselyte, so she went to Abraham, Yitzchak, and Jacob, but they did not accept her. As a result, she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz, the son of Esau, saying: “I would rather be a servant to this (Jewish) people than a mistress of another nation.” From her Amalek, who afflicted Israel, was descended. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her.
This Talmudic statement is difficult to understand. It is, after all, unclear why the forefathers refused to take her under their wing and why they did not allow her to join the Jewish people, especially when we know that they went out of their way to convert as many people as possible. Furthermore, one would expect the Talmud to justify the decision of the three forefathers; instead, the sages rebuke the patriarchs for their failure to accept her for conversion. The sages’ commitment to truth exceeded their love for the patriarchs. This is unprecedented. They could have suppressed the story, or they could have stated that Timna was indeed unworthy. The fact that they did not proves their integrity and uncompromising commitment to the truth.
What is even more surprising is that they considered the patriarchs’ refusal to accept Timna into Judaism as the prime reason why Israel would later be afflicted by the offspring of the first Amalek.
This reminds us of a statement made by the Ramban when he discusses the reasons why the Arab nations have exhibited so much hostility toward the Jewish people. When Hagar became pregnant from Abraham and subsequently looked down on Sarah (who could not become pregnant), Sarah complained to Abraham about her. “Then Abraham said to Sarah: ‘Behold, your maid is in your hands; do to her that which is good in your eyes.’ Then Sarah dealt harshly with her, and she (Hagar) fled from her.” Ramban’s comment is most telling:
Sarah, our mother, sinned in dealing harshly (with Hagar) — and Abraham, too, by allowing her to do so. God heard her (Hagar’s) suffering and gave her a son who was destined to be a lawless person, who would afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah with all kinds of suffering.
In later days, it was Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, rabbi of Bialystok and one of the great leaders of the Hibbat Zion movement, who made a similar comment when the Turkish government was about to banish from the Jewish settlements those Russian Jews who moved to the country but had not taken Ottoman citizenship. He cried out and said that it is because of “(Hagar) and her son” that the Muslims would now cast out the sons of Sarah from their land.
Once again, we are confronted with an unbending commitment to truth. Even when running the risk of putting our spiritual heroes in a compromising light, the sages did not shrink from criticizing the patriarchs and matriarchs. And once again, we hear a daring statement that because of this, Jews still encounter hostility from their enemies thousands of years later.
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 Jacob had dealt with his brother Esau. On the words in the Megillah — “And Mordechai understood all that was done; and Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes; and he went out into the midst of the city and cried a loud and bitter cry” — the Midrash Rabbah dares to make the following observation:
One bitter cry did Jacob cause Esau to cry (after he had stolen the blessings from Esau), as it says: “When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried an exceedingly loud and bitter cry,” and it was paid back to him [Jacob] in Shushan when his offspring [Mordechai and the Jews] cried a loud and bitter cry [because of the great trouble that Haman, the offspring of Amalek and Esau, caused the Jews].
This may have been the reason why the sages declared that some descendants of Haman taught Torah in Bnei Brak, and some later authorities felt that one could perhaps accept members of the nation of Amalek as converts. Somehow, they felt that not all members of Amalek were totally evil; nor were the people of Israel completely blameless.
Why, indeed, did the sages emphasize the injustice by our forefathers? Why not keep quiet? They certainly didn’t want to justify the antisemitism of the Amalekites or the hate of the Arab nations. Nor did they wish to embarrass the patriarchs, knowing quite well that they were men of great spirituality
I believe that a careful look in the Torah may provide us with the answer. The Torah demands of the Jews: “You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget.” This commandment seems to be a paradox: How can we erase the memory of Amalek if we are not allowed to forget what he did?
However, it is very possible that the Torah hints here not only at the monstrous deeds of Amalek, but also the injustices that were done by our forefathers when dealing with Esau 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 was unjustified and consequently caused ongoing pain to their people and to the people of Israel.
In other words, the Torah teaches us to erase Amalek’s memory by doing everything in our power not to give cause to unwarranted feelings. We create our own enemies, and we Jews have to teach ourselves and others to prevent this by all means. This, however, cannot be done once and for all. It is a constant demand that should never be forgotten.
The earlier critical observations by our sages are therefore most crucial. By emphasizing the injustices done by our forefathers, and their disastrous repercussions, they gave us the means to fulfill the mitzvah of blotting out Amalek’s memory and paradoxically never forgetting what they did to us.
Finally, one wonders whether the Talmud is teaching us to approach every proselyte with much care and love. Sending them away and telling them that they are unworthy may be completely unjustified — and a desecration of God’s name on top of that. It can lead to major disasters, as in the case of Timna.
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate or any other rabbinate should take notice.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.