The Middle East is in geopolitical turmoil. An alliance of four powerful kings has gained control over vast swaths of land, including the Five Towns on the plains around the Dead Sea. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who lives in the town of Sodom is taken hostage. When Abraham hears that his nephew has been captured, he gathers together a small army of his own and soundly defeats the alliance.
The Torah’s description of the war is intricately detailed. It lists eleven locations and five nations that were affected by the war. One verse stands out [Bereishit 14:7]: “On their way back [the four kings] came to Ein-Mishpat, which is Kadesh, and subdued all the territory of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who dwelt in Hazazon-Tamar.” Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, makes two surprising comments. Regarding Ein-Mishpat, also known as Kadesh, Rashi asserts “It is here named Ein-Mishpat (‘the well of judgment’’) in reference to what would happen there in the future, where Moshe and Aharon would one day be judged because of what occurred at that fountain.”. Rashi is referring to an episode that would occur hundreds of years later in which Moshe, in a botched attempt to extract water from a rock, hits it instead of speaking to it, and as a result, both he and his brother Aharon are forbidden from entering the Land of Israel. Rashi is suggesting that Ein-Mishpat/Kadesh was named for an event that had not yet occurred. Rashi is not finished. In his very next comment, regarding the “territory of the Amalekites”, he notes that “Amalek, it is true, was not yet born, but it is here named in reference to the name it would bear in the future”. That is to say, the “territory of the Amalekites” was named after Amalek, Abraham’s great-great-grandson, the future nemesis of the Jewish People, a person who would not be born for more than a century.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel a century after Rashi, takes umbrage with Rashi’s remarks. The Ramban understands why Rashi made his comment regarding Kadesh: The reason that Rashi assumes that Kadesh is referring to the same Kadesh where Moshe and Aharon were punished is because of its dual-name Ein-Mishpat, where “mishpat” in Hebrew means “judgement”. But while the Ramban understands what is bothering Rashi, he does not understand Rashi’s solution. The Ramban posits that there are two potential ways for an object to be named after a future person or event:
- Cause and effect are reversed: The people in Abraham’s time possessed powers of prophecy and they named the object after a future event.
- Cause and effect are maintained: In Abraham’s time, the object had a different name. Years later, when Moshe transcribed the Torah, he updated the name of the object after its name had already been changed.
The Ramban does not find either of the two solutions acceptable. He suggests that Amalek was some famous person who lived in Abraham’s era and that Abraham’s great-grandson, Elifaz, named his son after this person.
It seems bizarre that two examples of something being named after a future event appear in the same verse. It turns out that if we zoom out only slightly, yet another example becomes visible. When Abraham hears that his nephew, Lot, has been kidnapped, the Torah describes Abraham as [Bereishit 14:13] “dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being [Abraham’s] allies”. Nearly four hundred years later, when Moshe sends twelve spies to reconnoitre the Land of Israel in preparation for attack, we are told [Bemidbar 13:23-24] “They reached Wadi Eshkol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster (“eshkol”) of grapes… They named that place Wadi Eshkol because of the cluster that the Israelites cut down there.” In other words, Wadi Eshkol was named after the enormous cluster – eshkol, in Hebrew – of grapes that the spies found there. Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, known as the Vilna Gaon, who lived in Lithuania in the eighteenth century, asserts that when the Torah tells us “They reached Wadi Eshkol”, it must mean that the place was already called Wadi Eshkol even before the spies arrived there. Apparently, Wadi Eshkol was named after an event that would transpire in the future.
The Vilna Gaon answers his own question by suggesting that Wadi Eshkol was originally named after Abraham’s ally, Eshkol, and subsequently, after the spies found the cluster of grapes there, it was “renamed” to Wadi Eshkol (“Wadi Cluster”). The Vilna Gaon proves his point by noting that when the Torah tells us that the spies arrived at Wadi Eshkol, it spells the word “Eshkol” without a vav (“chasser”) and that after it was “renamed”, Eshkol was spelled with a vav (“maleh”). Nevertheless, the fact that the name of the place was changed while its pronunciation remained the same is most unusual.
Kadesh, Amalek, and Eshkol are examples of places and people that appear in the War of the Four Kings that were in some way named for future events. Why should they appear simultaneously and why specifically in this episode? Perhaps a better question would be “Why did the Torah included this episode at all?” The story of the War of the Four Kings is replete with mundane facts and figures that seem more at home in a book of military history than in the Torah, a book of ethics, the projection of G-d’s infinite Divine Will in our finite corporeal world. Further, while the only reason that Abraham entered the war was to rescue his nephew, Lot, notice how the Torah summarises the conclusion of the war [Bereishit 14:16] “[Abraham] brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people.” Lot is mentioned almost as an afterthought. There was no happy reunion, not even a simple thank-you. It almost seems that the “possessions” were more important than Lot.
I suggest that an answer lies in Amalek. The nation of Amalek attacked the Jewish People soon after the Egyptian exodus. In response, G-d promises that He will surely blot out the memory of Amalek. We are commanded to remember Amalek’s diabolical attack every day. This seems odd. Amalek is not the only nation that ever attacked us. Others have done far worse and yet we were never commanded to constantly remember their evil until they have been eradicated. Why does only Amalek require eradication?
Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, who lived at the turn of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe and in the U.S., believes that Amalek is not a nation as much as it is a concept: Any nation that aims to commit genocide against the Jewish People is defined as “Amalek”. Amalek today is alive and well and living in Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran. This idea stems from Amalek’s almost zombie-like existence in the Tanach. Scripture records three separate battles in which Amalek is completely and entirely destroyed. In the first war against Amalek, the Torah tells us [Shemot 17:13] “Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword”. In the second instance [Samuel I 1:9] King Saul kills every last Amalekite except the king, who is killed the next day by the prophet Samuel. And yet a few short chapters later, Amalek is back on the scene warring with King David. Didn’t we kill these guys already? It must be that Amalek is more than a physical entity. Conceptually, Amalek is above space and time.
In its description of the War of the Four Kings, the Torah mentions Kadesh, Amalek, and Eshkol specifically because they were named for future events. One might go so far to say as that the message of this episode is that not only is the Torah is not a book of history, the Torah defies history. The Torah defies cause and effect. The Torah lies in its own plane of existence. It is the ultimate cause while everything else is the effect.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.
 See the explanation of the Gur Aryeh ad loc for a vociferous defense of Rashi’s position.
 The Torah spells “Eshkol” without a vav every time it mentions Abraham’s friend.
 See commentary of the Bechor Shor ad loc.