Converting Amalek’s Mom??

This Shabbat, Shabbat “Zachor,” the Shabbat before Purim, a second Torah is taken out and in addition to this week’s Torah portion, we read a passage from Deuteronomy (25:17-19) describing the obligation to remember the war of Amalek (which appears in Exodus 17:8-15). Since Haman is considered a descendant of Amalek, we read about it (again) just before Purim.

Who’s Amalek anyway??

Amalek is the son of Timna, the concubine of Eliphaz, who is the son of Esau (listed in the “begets” of Genesis 36:12). The Talmud tells that she was a daughter of kings, and that she wanted to convert, but our forefathers did not accept her (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 96:b). That’s why Amalek was born of her, someone who combines two detrimental wishes directed at us: the desire to replace Israel, and the desire to annihilate us.

The Torah also tells us when we are exposed to this danger of Amalek “who happened to us on the road” (Deuteronomy 25:18). Like his double desire against us, Amalek’s danger is of twofold: one, harming us on the road, while we move and transit, whether geographically between places or within time, between eras and various periods in history. The other is the emphasis on the “coincidental” in the world, as if things just happen mindlessly and there’s no God.

This desire was once again expressed through Haman. Before Purim we remind ourselves, not just to preserve history but to warn ourselves, so we will not give up our existence nor our unique identity.

But wait, why did the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not accept Timna, his mother? This sounds terrible, especially in light of the troubles and misfortune later caused by Amalek, not to mention what I suspect are our reactions to similar situations nowadays!

The Talmud goes so far to say, that our sages claim that the forefathers were punished, because they shouldn’t have distanced her if she came to them for her conversion. Wow. How is it possible that the sages criticize our nation’s forefathers? And for Amalek’s mom?? Were they actually wrong?

Maybe, there are things that were right and fitting during our forefathers’ era, but not right during the sages’ time. That is, in the time of our forefathers, our People were at a very early stage of their coming into existence. Accepting converts into a system that was barely established and organized could cause unrest and instability. However, during the time of our sages, our identity was much more secure, clear and formed, so it seemed to them, especially faced with knowing the damage caused by Amalek, that they should have done what they could have to draw her near, convert her, and bring her into our People.

I think about this in light of the current turmoil around conversion in Israel: Maybe those who feel (or think they feel -) pretty secure in our – more or less – cohesive Jewish and Israeli identity, whether rightly or not, are willing to go for “reforms”, changes, easing off and what might be seen as reductions in conversion’s strictness. While those who are “charedi” (“ultra-Orthodox” and also literally ‘anxious’) and worry about the fate of the people of Israel, not necessarily unjustly (!) – less so. Can we hear each other’s fears and concerns?

When someone is “anxious”, there is no point in standing next to him and yelling, “enough, don’t be afraid!” and “what are you afraid of this nonsense”! And there is also no point in laughing and mocking them. It does not help us in our personal life nor in national life; on the contrary: it usually only worsens the situation even further. So what can we do? Maybe just this: respectfully learn Torah that deal with this challenge, recognizing that there are no clear answers, and we are walking in this fragile path together. This is also Esther’s reaction when facing Amalek: to respond to the claim of the “scattered and dispersed” people with a call for a strong, solid, united ingathering.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Currently a "toshevet chozeret" to Israel, Rabbanit Michal Kohane is a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, teacher of Torah and Talmud in Israel and abroad, and chaplain in training. She holds several degrees in Jewish / Israel studies as well as a PsyD in organizational psychology, and has been a leader and educator for over 25 years. Michal’s first novel, Hachug ("Extracurricular") was published in Israel by Steimatzky, and her weekly, mostly Torah, blog can be found at
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