The fateful rejection behind Haman's hate

The rabbis made a surprising link between the children of Israel and their Amalekite arch-enemies, the ancestors of Haman


By Benedict Roth, March 14, 2014
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The execution of King Agag (Gustave Dore)

The execution of King Agag (Gustave Dore)

The nation of Amalek is presented in the Bible as a nihilistic, destructive force that attacks without mercy and without reason. Saul, Israel’s first king, had an opportunity to exterminate Amalek entirely but, whether because of compassion or because of greed, he stayed his hand and was punished for his hesitancy.

On the Shabbat before Purim, this week, we re-read Saul’s story, together with the Torah’s paradoxical command to remember what Amalek did but also to erase its memory. What is the connection between Amalek and Purim? And how can we approach the Torah’s paradoxical command to simultaneously remember and erase?

Haman, the villain of the story of Purim, was, by tradition, a descendant of Amalek. Superficially, the rabbis make this connection because he carries the name (“the Agagite”) of Amalek’s last king, Agag, whom Saul failed to kill. But the connection is deeper: Haman’s irrational urge to destroy the Jewish people recalls the merciless and destructive acts associated with Amalek in earlier times.

Amalek attacks Israel’s stragglers and weaklings as they cross the desert after leaving Egypt; Amalek attacks the unarmed town of Ziklag, where David’s family resides. Tellingly, David locates the raiders after finding a slave they had abandoned: too ill to keep up with the group, the boy had been left in the desert to die alone (1 Samuel 30).

Remembering Amalek’s destructive, amoral force while simultaneously “erasing its memory”, as the Torah demands, requires a considered, complex response. One possibility is given in the Sifrei, a commentary on Deuteronomy from talmudic times, which contains a cryptic remark about Amalek that makes us pause. The Sifrei examines the words that Moses uses when he educates the new generation about Amalek’s attack in the desert forty years earlier (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Moses tells them that Amalek attacked “when you were tired and weary, and did not fear God”.

The Sifrei then surprises us. It says, “What you did was done to you. Just as you were tired and weary and did not fear God, so he was tired and weary and did not fear God.” By equating “us” with “him”, Israel with Amalek, this remark shocks and disturbs us. Amalek represents genocide. Amalek represents purposeless, merciless destruction. Amalek represents everything that Israel is opposed to. Yet, according to the Sifrei, we are like him. “Just as you were tired and weary and did not fear God, so he was tired and weary and did not fear God.” The Sifrei reminds us that we are all human, all made in the same image.

How can it draw this conclusion from Moses’s words? The clearest part of the Sifrei’s logic is its reading of the expression “did not fear God”. For Moses’s words are ambiguous. Perhaps Amalek did not fear God, in attacking without compassion, or perhaps Israel did not fear God, in doubting His protection. The text can be read both ways.

But the logic behind the Sifrei’s reading of the expression “tired and weary” is puzzling. Moses says that Israel was tired and weary after travelling from Egypt on foot, short of water: he does not indicate that Amalek was “tired and weary” too. In order to understand it, we need to go back two generations.

Amalek’s grandfather, Esau, was the brother of Moses’s great-great-grandfather, Jacob. Israel and Amalek are cousins. The Sifrei’s words refer to Esau, who comes home “tired” from the hunt and sells his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of soup. They whisper to us that if Jacob, the grandfather of the Jewish people, had not exploited Esau’s hunger when he came home, tired and weary, then Esau’s grandson Amalek might not have attacked Jacob’s descendants when they struggled through the desert, “tired and weary”, after leaving Egypt.

The rabbis make a similar link between Esau’s “great and bitter cry”, when he learns that Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing, and Mordecai’s “great and bitter cry” of when he learns of Haman’s plans. Both these links are close to a talmudic tradition (Sanhedrin 99b) that Amalek’s mother Timna was a princess who wished to join the Jewish people but was refused by Abraham, by Isaac and by Jacob. Rejected, she married into the family of Esau. Her son grew up to be our enemy.

Neither the Sifrei nor the talmudic tradition in Sanhedrin are suggesting that it was right for Amalek to attack Israel. It was not. But they are reminding us that our small deeds as individuals may have momentous future consequences for the nation as a whole. That the approach we take to relationships with our enemies — even our most dreadful enemies — can perpetuate violence or can arrest it. And that the act of remembering the past, if it changes us, can change the present and the future — erasing hatred and creating peace — in true fulfilment of the Torah’s paradoxical command to remember and to erase as well.

While accepting sole responsibility for any errors or omissions, the author acknowledges that some of the ideas in this article were originally presented by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag in a lecture at the London School of Jewish Studies in 2012

Last updated: 3:45pm, March 14 2014