Some time ago, a member of my kehilla who is gently provocative asked my advice during the Shabbat morning Shul Kiddush. He has a neighbor, a genteel gentile, whose name is Mr. Amalek, a helpful, charming and civilised man. What should my member do?
I replied that he is expected to live in peace and amity with Mr. Amalek and is even welcome to bring him to Shul, first as we no longer have definitive identifications of the nations of Biblical times (Mishna, Yadayim 4:4); and second, as Amalekites, descendants of Haman, taught Torah in Bnei Brak (Sanhedrin 96b), showing that the individual Amalekite has free choice and can rise out of his ethnic past and become a different and better person.
Our Torah and Tanach sources see a continuous family line from Esav to Amalek to Agag to Haman. It is interesting that at each and every stage, the identification relates to just one stage previous rather than going back all the way to either Esav or Amalek. Agag is described as a descendant of Amalek, but not of Esav. Haman is always the Agagite but never the Amalekite, and the scholars of Bnei Brak were from Haman, but Agag is not mentioned.
Perhaps this is because each stage represents a new direction both in anti-Semitism and of rebellion against Hashem, that connects somewhat to the previous one but is sufficiently distinct to be a different form of anti-Semitism.
Amalek acted as a guerrilla group, targeting the vulnerable. This attack may have been a one-off occasion and he himself might have anticipated that he had little chance of destroying the Israelites as a nation, but would nevertheless cause significant losses and loss of morale. Agag was a sovereign king, using torture and cruelty against his victims, presumably on a regular basis, but not threatening the existence of the Jewish people as a nation. Haman, annoyed with a single individual, paid the Persian emperor to allow him to annihilate everyone who shared the ethnicity of his enemy. Over generations, the occasional attacker became the constant thorn and, finally, the genocidal threat.
Who Are Our Ancestors?
While Sancherev exiled the nations to the extent that it was not possible to identify them, does this mean that everyone was totally devoid of the knowledge of their ancestry? Perhaps they knew something of their past, but their ancestry was so mixed that they could not be defined in halachic terms as belonging to one nation rather than another, so that while Haman was descended from Agag, much of his ancestry was neither from Agag nor Amalek.
Similarly, while the anonymous scholars of Bnei Brak were descended from Haman, there were other lines of ancestry that predominated, enabling them to use the abilities of Haman that they had inherited, qualities of commitment to one idea, for positive purposes, for teaching Torah.
And if scholars of Bnei Brak were descended from Haman and therefore from Amalek, it may be that all of us are descended from those scholars and therefore from Amalek. (As everyone has 2 parents, 4 grandparents etc. etc., going back some 80 generations, the chances are that we are descended from every Jew of the Talmudic period many times over. So, somewhere in our ancestry is Amalek.)
How do we blot out his memory? How do we blot out that part of Amalek, however minimal, that is in our gene pool? The answer is through Purim. Amalek did not believe in Hashem even when He performed obvious miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea. Instead, he perceived the miracles of the Exodus as coincidence.
When we listen to the Megillah, the story that could be interpreted as coincidence, we recognize and believe in Hashem’s miracles, even when His presence is not obvious.
Amalek attacked the vulnerable, the tail end of the Israelites. We assist the vulnerable though matanot la’evyonim.
Amalek was for himself and for nobody else – he had even separated from his tribe, from the larger group of Edomites. Through mishloach manot, we relate to others.
Perhaps there is another strand in Amalek being one of our multitude of ancestors. There is a Midrash that says that while Avraham and Yitzchak were at the Akeidah, the two lads left behind, identified as Eliezer and Yishmael, debated which of them would become again Avraham’s heir if Yitzchak perished – Yishmael as Abraham’s son or Eliezer as his closest pupil. The Torah was offered to Esav and Yishmael and to other descendants of Avraham, even more specifically than to the other nations of the world (Avodah Zarah 2b, Rashi on Devarim 33:2).
Most did not accept, but Yitro from Midian, one of Abraham’s sons by Keturah, accepted the Torah. Ruth, descended from Moab, Abraham’s great-nephew, accepted the Torah. Naamah from Ammon, another of Avraham’s great-nephews, accepted the Torah. Even from Amalek, the most ungrateful of Avraham’s descendants, and from Haman, the most threatening of Amalek’s descendants, a line could return to Avraham’s path.
Rabbi Zorach Meir Salasnik, a contributor to Beit Hillel, has been Rabbi of Bushey United Synagogue, near London, U.K. since 1979. He is also Senior Jewish Hospital Chaplain and is a former Chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue and Secretary of the Chief Rabbi’s Cabinet.
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