Most families have a genealogy maven, but most of us do not get excited about it. Verse 36:9 of this week's Parsha, Vayislach is a full-page listing of descendants of Esau and in 36:12 presents Amalek, our archenemy, for the first time. My first inclination is to always gloss over it.
The parsha is replete with manifold "juicy" happenings, ranging from the rape of Dinah to her brothers' violent response to the well-documented death of Isaac, to mention only a few. Rabbis of the more "progressive" strains (of which I am certainly a part) give short shrift to the aegis of Amalek, while my more right-leaning counterparts place great emphasis on the "blotting out of Amalek." We need at the very least to be familiar with and examine him. How did he get to be such a pain in the...neck?
Amalek is described as a son of a concubine-denoting inferior status. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) notes that (his mother) Timna was actually of royal lineage, which begs the question, how did she get to be a concubine? We are told she was a God-fearing woman who wanted to convert, but Abraham and Isaac would not accept her. Undeterred, she made herself a concubine to Esau's family, reasoning that it would be better to be a concubine of distinguished monotheists than a noble to others!
The Midrash (Bereshit Rabba) takes a completely different tack. It reflects the powerful spiritual connection of Abraham and family. If Esau, who only observed one mitzvah (filial piety), could attract converts, how much more so could Jacob? Even this self-serving midrash is not consonant with the self-critical approach of the Talmud. The Talmud makes the "reach" to say that Timna produced Amalek, our age-old nemesis, as the result of the refusal of Abraham and Isaac to convert her. Rashi explains they should have converted Timna, who had come "to seek shelter under the Wings of Shekhinah-instead they drove her off-and we got evil Amalek as a result.
This is a remarkable statement-Amalek-our age-old tormenter, who is associated with anti-Semitism throughout the ages from Haman to Torquemada to Hitler, is in reality our own creation. In many shuls at parsha Ki Tietzei (Deuteronomy 25:19) great emphasis is placed on "wiping out the memory of Amalek", and the parsha closes with "do not forget." We have here a topos-a literary theme that recurs in popular culture (including the current film Megamind, which I have not seen, but which features an accidental villain) -- about the origin of villains as essentially good people who are soured by society.
This week's parsha reminds us that no matter what is going on around us and what we think about different people, we too should give everyone the benefit of the doubt until really getting to know someone, to learn whether he or she is good or evil.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham