Jewish thought usually takes care not to demonize enemies. But Purim might be an exception. The rabbis connect Haman, the villain, with Amalek, a destructive nation whom we are commanded to exterminate. Our relationship with Amalek is close to a tribal feud.
Amalek attacks Israel in the desert when the nation leaves Egypt. Israel’s first king, Saul, defeats the Amalekites in battle but chooses not to kill them all: the prophet Samuel reproaches him for his mercy and passes his throne to David. Amalek’s descendant Haman tries, in turn, to exterminate Israel at the time of the Persian Empire but is defeated and hangs on his own gallows, together with his ten sons.
When we celebrate Purim we celebrate his defeat and, on the shabbat before Purim, we re-read in synagogue the Torah’s command to “blot out the memory of Amalek”.
Of course, this commandment no longer exists in practical terms because, in the words of the Talmud, ‘all the nations were mixed up by Sennacherib the king of Assyria’ when he invaded Israel 2,700 years ago. Today it would be impossible to identify any individual as a descendant of Amalek and modern rabbis use poetic license in interpreting the command to ‘blot out their memory’.
But poetry has its dangers and, this year, I’m sure there will be many synagogues in which the mythical enemy of Amalek is confused with modern ones such as Hamas.
In this context we might re-visit the words of Rabbi Suliman ibn Uchna, one of the kabbalists of Tzefat of the sixteenth century, whose commentary on the Sifrei, an ancient exposition of the book of Deuteronomy, is frequently-quoted by modern editors. Rabbi Suliman traces our feud back to Amalek’s grandfather, Esau, the brother of Jacob.
He suggests that if Jacob, the grandfather of the Jewish people, hadn’t taken advantage of his brother Esau when he came in from his hunt, ‘tired and weary’, and purchased Esau’s birthright for a pot of soup, then Esau’s grand-son Amalek would not have attacked Jacob’s great-grandchildren when they struggled through the desert, ‘tired and weary’, after leaving Egypt.
In this reading he’s close to a Talmudic tradition in Sanhedrin (page 99b) that Amalek’s mother, Timna, was someone who wanted to become part of the Jewish people but was refused. Rejected, she married into the family of Esau and her son grew up to be our enemy. These ideas are echoed by Rabbi S R Hirsch who notes that Esau might have developed differently if his education at the hands of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob’s parents, had been different.
Neither Rabbi Suliman nor the Talmudic tradition in Sanhedrin is suggesting that it was right for Amalek to attack Israel. It was wrong. But they’re reminding us that our actions as individuals can have deadly consequences in future years for the nation as a whole. And that the approach we take to relationships with our enemies can either bring peace closer or push it further away.
This is just as important a message today as it was in the time of Rabbi Suliman.
Midrash Tanchuma (Yitro 3) draws parallels between the entire national mind-set and Amelek’s attack on Israel in the desert. In the verse that immediately precedes those describing the attack we’re told of how the nation asks ‘whether God is among us or not?’ in response to lack of water. The Midrash compares Am Yisrael to a spoilt child riding on his father’s shoulders. Whenever the child sees something he wishes for, the father bends down and passes it up to him. Nonetheless, on passing another man the child asks the stranger – ‘I’m looking for my father, have you seen him anywhere’? The analogy is that God’s presence among us is not dependant external events but on our own consciousness. In the midrashic analogy Amalek’s attack reminds us of just how disconnected to reality Israel’s mind-set in the desert had been. It was an insulted response in our national dialogue with the Omnipresent, a slap in the face by the very narrative of history. Happy Birthday Benedict!