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B'shallah: Earning Eternal Enmity

Exodus 13:17–17:16

At the very end of this week's portion, the newly freed Israelites are attacked by Amalek. After the attack is rebuffed, and after Joshua, the Israelites' commanding officer, inflicts casualties on the aggressors, Moses declares (Exodus 17:16): "God will wage war against Amalek from generation to generation." Who were the Amalekites, and how did they earn God's eternal enmity?

The eponymous ancestor of the Amalekites was a grandson of Esau. His father was Eliphaz (Genesis 36:12). According to a later genealogy (1 Chronicles 1:36), his mother Timna was herself a daughter of Eliphaz, implying that Amalek was the child of incest: not an auspicious start. The next we hear of him is the attack mentioned above, for which no legal or moral justification is cited. Indeed, the Torah will later hark back to this event as a "random" and dastardly act ("he picked off your stragglers"), commanding the Israelites "to destroy the memory of Amalek beneath heaven" (Deuteronomy 25:17 ff.). Even Balaam, the Midianite seer, prophesied that Amalek's "remnants will dissolve throughout eternity" (Numbers 24:20), thereby affirming the Torah's assessment of the grave affront to God represented by this unprovoked assault.

Elsewhere in the Bible, the prophetess Deborah offers a somewhat opaque allusion to Amalek in her victory song (Judges 5:14); Saul's defeat of the Amalekite king Agag is narrated in detail (1 Samuel 15); and an Amalekite "lad" makes a brief appearance in connection with Saul's later suicide (2 Samuel 1). Beyond these references, the Bible is silent. Not so the Midrash, which identifies Haman, of Purim infamy, not merely as an Amalekite but as a lineal descendant of Agag. Haman's nefarious plot, likewise unprovoked, is seen as advancing the genocidal objectives of his ancestors, for which he is duly undone by Mordecai, a lineal descendant of King Saul (Esther 2:5).

Among modern interpretations of Amalek, two outstanding ones have been offered by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) and the hasidic rebbe Kalonymus Shapira (1889-1943). Soloveitchik proceeds by way of noting an ostensible contradiction in the thought of Maimonides, who nullified the biblical obligation to destroy the seven Canaanite nations (Deuteronomy 20:16-17) on the grounds that these entities were no longer identifiable per se. Why then, asks Soloveitchik, did Maimonides not similarly nullify the obligation to destroy Amalek? His reply: because Amalek still exists—if not as a person or as a nation, then as an ideology. Anyone whose avowed purpose is the annihilation of the Jewish people becomes, by definition, Amalek.

Shapira, who was murdered in the Holocaust, had a more highly spiritualized interpretation, drawn from a Midrash that speaks of the need to destroy "the seed of Amalek." Lamenting the circumstances in which Jews, in mortal jeopardy, are obliged by religious law to desecrate the Sabbath and transgress other commandments, he asks wistfully whether such habits of nonfeasance, initiated on account of "Amalek," will in fact persevere instead of ceasing when the fearful times pass. "The seed of Amalek," he writes, "is whatever Amalek implants in us"—and this is precisely what needs to be uprooted. 



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