Jews have a tendency to be self-critical which is oft-lamented. Isn’t it enough that everyone else is against us? Do we really need to point out our own faults with greater zeal than our enemies do?
When the rabbis mined the barren landscape of chapter 36 for meaning, there are many things they could have focused on. You wouldn’t think that self-criticism is one of them. It’s a chapter with only one incidental reference to Israel. All the rest discusses Esav’s family, his kings and his neighbors, and a careful reading of Esav’s convoluted family tree suggests rampant incest. If any criticism is hinted at here, it should be of them, not of us.
Certainly, when Amalek, the Jewish people’s arch-enemy, makes his first appearance, we would expect some words of condemnation from the rabbis. And indeed we find them. But remarkably, their accusing finger is squarely pointed inward, at the fathers of the Jewish nation.
The rabbinic midrash (Sanhedrin 99b) notes that Amalek’s mother Timna, a concubine of Elifaz, appears a few verses later as the sister of Lotan, a prince of Se’ir. In and of itself, not a resounding condemnation of the Jewish people. If anything, we’d expect the rabbis to highlight the genesis of the evil of Amalek as the result of intermarriage. Instead, they weave the story of a sincere would-be convert who is rejected by Avraham’s family. Undeterred, Timna’s great determination to attach herself in some way to this godly family leads her to sacrifice her lofty stature as a princess to be a sub-wife of Elifaz. The bitterness born of this rejection and this sacrifice is Amalek, the eternal thorn in the Jew’s side.
You can call it self-criticism. I call it an unquenchable thirst for assuming responsibility. And I love it.
This is (hopefully) a daily series of short reflections in English on the daily chapter of Tanach in the (wonderful, wonderful) 929 Project. The initiative, and the ideas and opinions expressed here, are my own. If you haven’t heard of 929, you can learn more at 929.org.il