Not infrequently, current events prompt Jews to summon up thoughts about a legendary biblical enemy whose enmity towards them lent itself to being identified as the epitome of evil. This enemy, the tribe of Amalek, is mentioned twice in the Torah in detail, once at the end of Parshat Beshallach and again, at the end of Parshat Ki Tetzei. The account found in this week’s parasha, Beshallach, is portrayed more prosaically as a battle between two bitter enemies slugging it out on the battle field with Moshe acting as a miraculous cheerleader, whereas the account in Parshat Ki Tetzei portrays a mythic battle between God and Amalek, a nation representing the forces of evil.
Interestingly, the Tannaitic (from the period of the Mishnah) midrash on Sefer Shmot (Exodus), the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, contains the richer collection of midrashim on the significance of this confrontation between the children of Israel and the tribe of Amalek and its religious and moral significance. I would like to examine a number of its midrashim to illustrate the variegated pictures the rabbinic sages paint in their attempt to digest what became symbolic of the fight between good and evil.
A word is in order concerning rabbinic interpretation. One should not expect definitive answers to the above question. This midrashic collection offers radically different interpretations one after the other which are often at odds with each other. This is characteristic of Jewish interpretation.
The story in the Torah opens with the verse:
Amalek came (vayavo) and fought with Israel at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8)
The word “vayavo – and he came” serves as the impetus for the different interpretations. Since it does not reference a particular rationale for the attacks, it gives the sages an opportunity to ponder what prompted them:
“And Amalek came” (Exodus 17:8): This verse is unclear and can be understood with reference to the following verse: “Can the rush grow without swamp? Can grass grow without water?” (Job 8:11) … So, too, Israel cannot exist without Torah. And because Israel separated from Torah, therefore, the enemy (Amalek) came upon them. For the enemy comes only on account of sin and transgression. Thus, it is written: “And Amalek came, etc.” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Parshat Amalek 1, Horowitz-Rabin ed. pp. 176-7)
As we can see, in the opening midrash, the sages ask the question: Why did Amalek ‘come’ and offer us an answer which places the blame for the attack squarely on the shoulders of their own people, likely as a message to their own audience to be more diligent and loyal to their commitment to Torah.
In the following midrash, another sage takes the story in another direction:
Rabbi Elazar Hamodai says: “And Amalek came”: Amalek surreptitiously entered under the edges of the cloud and kidnapped Israelites and killed them, as it says [regarding Amalek]: “who met you on the way … [when you were faint and weary] and he (Amalek) did not fear God.” (Deuteronomy 25:18) Others say: This (he) refers to Israel, who (at that time) did not have mitzvot in their hands. (Ibid.)
This passage sounds hauntingly familiar. Obviously, Rabbi Elazar was likely projecting onto the Amalek story his contemporary experiences but one can easily see that this midrash could easily be adopted today. What made Amalek different? Using a verse from the passage in Deuteronomy, Rabbi Elazar identifies Amalek with those who do not fear God and as a consequence, can do the awful thinks described in this midrash. The opinion of the “others” reflects similar thinking to what we saw in the first midrash.
Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta says: “And Amalek came”: He came plotting with others, for he gathered all the nations together and said to them: Come and help me against Israel. They responded to him: We cannot stand up against him. Pharaoh could not withstand them, for the Holy One Blessed be He drowned them in Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds), as it says: “And He threw out Pharaoh and his hosts in Yam Suf” (Psalms 136:15). How can we stand up against them? He (Amalek) replied: “Come and I will give you advice what to do. If they defeat me, flee; but if not, come and help me against Israel. Therefore, it says: “And Amalek came” — he came plotting with others. (Ibid.)
For Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta, Amalek gained his infamy by plotting and gathering other to join in his campaign to destroy the Jewish people.
The last example (but not least) example I want to bring:
Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi says: Amalek passed over five nations and he came and made war with Israel, as it says: “Amalek dwells in the southland” (Numbers 13:29), [namely, Amalek] was the innermost [nation] (It dwelled far from Israel.). Rabbi Natan says: [Amalek] came from the mountains of Seir. Amalek skipped four hundred parasangs and came to war against Israel. (Ibid.)
Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi saw in Amalek an enemy who had no reason for enmity yet still fostered hatred of the Jewish people.
What I have hoped to accomplish with this abbreviated catalogue of different interpretations of what prompted the dispute between the children of Israel and the Amalekites is to show how the rabbinic sages used this biblical story as a vehicle to thrash out the meaning of events in their lifetime. In doing so, they weighed whether the tragedies which befell them were caused by their own inadequacies or were the product of unwarranted evil. It is of value to appreciate that some of our most painful questions challenged and perplexed our sagacious predecessors as well. Perhaps, their insights can help us see the dilemmas which confront us more clearly.