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Entries in Amalek (2)

Sunday
Feb242013

Think before rejecting

One of the most incredible paragraphs in the Talmud explains that Amalek came into being due to Jewish rejection of a prospective convert:


And Lotan's sister was Timna... Timna was a royal princess... Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, 'I had 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)

We are not told why she was rejected. Since the mission of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was to spread monotheism, why did they not want to accept her? Was there something about her that made them feel uncomfortable? Whether that was true or not, this courageous section of Talmud makes no bones about its message. It was our own fault that we ended up plagued by Amalek, our arch-nemesis. Evil begets evil.

So next parshat Zachor, let's wipe out not only Amalek but also, in general, acts of rejection we commit due to insularity, snobbery, fear or hatred. Let's try harder to embrace and welcome people with open arms, even those who make us feel uncomfortable, and remember the words of Bob Marley in his song "Corner Stone":

Cause the things people refuse

Are the things they should choose

Sunday
Feb242013

Amalek - who cares anyway?

Zachor.

Once a year, Jews are commanded to read this paragraph aloud in Synagogue:

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt;
How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.

This commandment is taken very seriously, and the synagogue is much more crowded than usual as the late sleepers force themselves out of bed. (Some communities even read the paragraph twice in different accents to make sure it is understood by all!)

The essence of the commandment is to remember a nation named Amalek (descended from Esau), in order to blot out their name entirely. The question begs to be asked - if we had not bothered to remember Amalek all these years, their name would long ago have dropped out of human history. Thus we end up achieving the opposite effect from the one ostensibly desired. 

Furthermore, what is the point of this mitzvah anyway today? Amalek probably died out long ago, no one knows for sure, so why can't we stop flogging a dead horse?

This year, noticing my friends grappling with this question, I understood something. Since it is not obvious who Amalek is, the commandment forces us once a year to try to pinpoint what evil is. Is Amalek an evil nation? Is it a spiritual evil, and if so, what is its nature (doubt? chance? meaninglessness? rejection?) The commandment generates discussion and debate on this topic.

I think once a year to attempt to define what evil is constitutes an important and meaningful act. We remember that there is evil in the world... and perhaps ask ourselves what we can do in order to combat it.

(With thanks to Ethan Stephen Press and Barak Tzuberi, through whose struggle with the question of Amalek this insight arose).