Jeremy England
Former- MIT-physics-prof-turned-rav in Israel

The Unmagical Temple: Amalek and the Serpent

Photo credit: Jeremy England

Genesis introduces the idea of disobeying God through a serpent because – like the snake’s fangs snapping at you as you hold its tail – the punishing long-term consequences of transgressing the divine command are highly difficult to predict or control through reason alone. In this sense, the laws of the Torah submit themselves as testable, practical advice about how the created world actually works. Moses the law-giver grasps the tail of a snake and turns it into a straight, inanimate staff, casting the Mosaic code as a kind of cheat sheet that can forewarn us if certain deeds will inevitably come back to bite us, even if we cannot easily understand how or when.

Physicists find it very easy to think about empirical laws in such terms. If a fellow comes along and says he has a nice new proposal for how to build a perpetual motion machine, you do not need to pore over the blueprints searching for a fatal design flaw in order to dismiss the device as a thermodynamic impossibility. There is something like the charade of the perpetual motion machine in how the State of Israel has refused to deal with Amalek in Gaza for the last twenty years. To show how, though, I first have to explain who Amalek is.

The Torah tells us Amalek was the grandson of Esau, but by the time of Moses his descendants had apparently become a nomadic tribe of some sort. As the Torah describes, Amalek attacked the Israelites in a place called Refidim when they were on their way from Egypt to Mount Sinai, but the significance of Amalek both in narrative and in law is greater than one raid by desert marauders seems to merit.  Exodus 17:16:  The Lord’s war is against Amalek from generation to generation.


It turns out that even the most ancient biblical sources themselves signal that Amalek is more timeless than a single clan of killers who attacked the Hebrews three thousand years ago. If that is not obvious enough from the phrase “generation to generation”, the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, does plenty more to drive home the idea that Amalek has a very fluid identity. Locations all over the map of ancient Israel are referred to in connection with Amalek, from the mountains of Ephraim in the north to where the Negev spills over into Egypt in the south at a spot we are elsewhere told belongs to Ishmael. Indeed, Amalek often gets jumbled with the names of other nations, as when Moses recounts the failed first attempt by the Israelites to invade the Holy Land and oddly rehashes their Amalekite foes as Amorites. In a related passage, the famous medieval commentator Rashi relays a talmudic account of an attack by “Amalekites dressed as Canaanites.”

There is nothing mysterious about who the Amalekites are, and how they may be so many different peoples at different times, once we look more closely at their defining characteristics. The Torah commands the Jews to:

17 Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt;

18 how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God.

19 Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.

(Deuteronomy 25:17-19.)

The aspect most commonly noted is the brutality of targeting the “stragglers,” or purposely attacking the weak and the vulnerable. However, it isn’t enough to say Amalek shows unrestrained cruelty, because their political and ideological hallmarks are clear from the source texts as well. Amalek attacks the Jewish people on their way from Egypt to Israel as they leave exile to lay claim to their land and temple. This theme repeats relentlessly throughout Tanakh; Amalek appears when the Israelites first scout the land, when Saul loses his kingship to David, and when Haman tries to annihilate the Jews in Persia following his emperor’s call for them to return to Jerusalem. The war of Amalek against the Lord and His people over generations makes perfect sense once we realize that the Amalekites are those who try to massacre the Jews on their way to claim their birthright and assume their duty as the heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This must be why we are told that Amalek was originally descended from Esau, who despised his younger brother Jacob for getting the inheritance and receiving the blessing that were originally slated for the elder. The Amalekite is not an opportunistic pirate or equal-opportunity predator; he is a fraternal competitor committed on principle to cleansing the world of the Children of Israel and the covenant they keep.

Amalek is not a particular ethnicity or race. Nor is Amalek confined to one or another political regime or historical period. Amalek was Haman and his followers, Amalek was Hitler and his Nazis, and Amalek is the global movement of jihadists whose war against Jews and Israel is now over a century old. Those paying attention have known this for a while; the cruelty of October 7 – rapes, beheadings, and sadistic mutilations in the course of exultant mass-murder –  in small and frequent doses it has been meted out to Jews in Israel by those waving the Amalekite banner for decades. The gleeful killers of our weak and vulnerable here in Israel gave clear rationales for the butchery: some said it was necessary to free Palestine, others said Islam required it, and they all intoned zealously that they stood for justice and divine authority. What was always clear is that we are dealing in part with idealists who would do it a thousand times over again if given the chance.

The State of Israel promised they would never be given the chance. Of course, it was admitted, Hamas are like the Nazis, maybe they fit the bill as Amalek, but we are so strong and smart that their declared intention to kill all Jews does not matter. What matters is our technological superiority; what matters is our yearning for stability; what matters is our commitment to peace. Forget about Hamas and their rockets – we have a solution for that. Airports can stay open, tourists can flood in, and investors will keep arriving to fuel and admire the flourishing of Start Up Nation.

The passage from Deuteronomy quoted above envisions a moment where the nation of Israel faces a choice between enjoying a little peace while leaving Amalek to fester or stirring up turmoil by taking the fight to them. God’s command is clear: “when Lord has given you rest from your enemies around in the land…you must wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do Not Forget!” For the better part of twenty years, we have preferred to spend billions on an ultra hi-tech perpetual forgetting machine. With a militarized Amalekite proto-state (of our own creation) within walking distance from where Jewish grandmothers and children lived, the Israeli state insisted on policies that chose the illusion of peace and the folly of forgetting over the mitzva of waging war against Amalek. Rockets? Tunnels? Rioters? Fire balloons? There’s an app for that. The Torah says not to forget because the temptation to do so in the short term is powerful. Yet implicit here is that every attempt to forget is guaranteed to fail in one way or another. Future inquiries will surely sift through every detail of why fences failed and who ignored crucial intel, but like discovering the flaw in some plan for a fantastic perpetual motion machine, understanding how our schemes to forget our God-given obligations eventually collapsed is an entirely ancillary exercise.

Physical laws are really not laws per se, but only our own provisional suggestions that do get amended now and then as we learn more. For this reason, no one can promise there will never be a perpetual motion machine. The claim, however, that the Torah comes from God (which is the claim that makes Jews Jews) amounts to admitting that our clever contrivances will never be good enough to put off dealing with Amalek indefinitely. Bitterly, the State of Israel’s choice to ignore the warning of “Do Not Forget” has led where we might expect it to. As the nation finally turns to the difficult work of doing with Amalek what our Creator has long been asking of us, we can be newly confident He is with us.

About the Author
Jeremy England is physicist, biologist, and machine learning researcher who also has received ordination as an orthodox rabbi. Previously a physics professor at MIT, he now resides in Israel and loves exploring the Torah’s commentaries on scientific reasoning.
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