The disproportion between Amalek’s crime and their punishment is stunning. Their desert attack of the pilgriming Jews elicits a seemingly exaggerated response—a specific mitzvah to eliminate every member of this nation, coupled with a separate mitzvah to verbally remember (zachor) this event. Evidently, this isolated skirmish is part of a larger narrative and it is that larger historical struggle that demands such a strident response. In fact, the verses describing the mitzvah to exterminate Amalek is textually dislocated from its natural location—immediately after the cease-fire in the end of Beshalach. Instead, the mitzvah appears at the tail end of the Torah, at the end of Ki Teitzei, as the final mitzvah listed in a parsha that contains the largest catalog of mitzvot. This location stresses that our reaction isn’t a response to the specific desert clash but reflects a broader historical context within which the desert war is just a chapter.
Appreciating this broader storyline demands that we both trace Amalek’s heritage and understand their timing. Amalek, the son of Elifaz, is a grandchild of Esav. Amalek’s pursuit of the Jewish nation isn’t incidental. This enraged nation still struggles to reverse the designation of Yaakov as the bechor. Amalek chafes at the notion of a selected nation in general and in particular at the designation of the Jews as that nation. Their attack against the newly formed nation is just the next strike in their historical battle to overturn the entire conclusion of Sefer Bereishit.
In fact, an interesting Gemara in Sanhedrin discusses the attempts of Amalek’s mother, Imna, to affiliate with this evolving Jewish nation. She descended from local aristocracy in Se’ir but tried, in vain, to join Avraham’s entourage. After she was spurned by Avraham she defected to Esav’s lineage, reasoning that it was wise to affiliate in any way possible with this family—even by becoming a concubine to Elifaz and even with the recognition that Esav’s progeny was destined to be subservient to his chosen brother, Yaakov. Such was the draw of Avraham and his clan in Sefer Bereishit. At some point, however, according to a different midrash, Timna resented her being discarded and discharged to the lower ranks of this family. She actively poisons her son against Yaakov’s family and actively agitates against the descendants of her father-in-law’s (Esav’s) rival, Yaakov. Ultimately, Amalek’s aggression doesn’t evolve in a historical vacuum but is “seeded” in sefer Bereishit by the deselection of Esav and the subsequent anger of his scorned mother. Amalek arrives to rewrite Sefer Bereishit.
A different midrash highlights this strategy when it describes the warriors of Amalek severing the circumscribed body parts of dead Jewish soldiers and hurling these toward heaven. After flinging these heaps to Heaven they shouted in mockery at/to God, “These are the people You selected? Take your selected ‘mitzvah’ in return.” Without this historical backdrop, Amalek’s behavior is perplexing. Amalek is often portrayed as a warmongering nation or as pirates exploiting weak desert travelers. Tossing body parts to heaven would serve neither of these purposes. Appreciating that Amalek was just a chapter in the overall challenge to Jewish selection illuminates this strange behavior. Milah is the mitzvah of Sefer Breishit that highlights Jewish selection—a selection that Amalek bristles at and seeks to annul. By snipping the milah skins of Jews they were attacking the core of Jewish selection.
Understanding Amalek’s role in this light places the timing of this attack into perspective. For 210 years Jewish history lay dormant, suppressed under the tyranny and persecution of the Pharaohs. At this stage, however, the Jewish nation has matured and is marching at full speed toward their destiny in their chosen homeland. It is precisely at this stage that Amalek must re-launch their challenge to Jewish selection. The Jewish exodus has set the clock ticking backward toward Amalek’s red line: Jewish entry into their own state. Realizing this trajectory, Amalek confronts us on the derech—en route to Eretz Yisrael—seeking to bar that entry and deter the culmination of this “cursed” selection of Bereishit.
In fact, the next two rounds of Amalek’s intervention occur at similar historical seams as the Jewish experience transitions into newfound phases. When our nation finally achieves actual political sovereignty through the appointment of their first king (Shaul), Agag, an Amalek king, once again rallies his legions to challenge the Jewish claim of history in their land. Finally, Haman’s genocide isn’t hatched in a historical vacuum. The Jews had already returned to Israel and had constructed the infrastructure of the second Mikdash. Their efforts were halted by local opposition, but Jewish resettlement of Israel was pending; once again, an Amalek representative, in this instance Haman, rallies (unsuccessfully) to this historical challenge of Esav and his grandson Amalek.
The ability to frame the Amalek war within a broader historical context is accentuated by the Torah when it concludes that the war with Amalek is a battle that is waged “midor dor,” throughout various generations. The names of the players change, but the drama remains the same. One nation was selected by God to represent Him in this world and broadcast His message. Our broadcast tower was meant to be built in this Land of God. As we struggle through history and veer closer to this scenario, Amalek ascends to challenge that status and restore the lost glory of a rejected ancestor.
The aggressive response to Amalek isn’t based upon an isolated conflict. It is mandated through history—midor dor—to reinforce our chosen status and our rights to the Land of Israel, even in the face of the stiffest historical opposition.
By Rabbi Moshe Taragin
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion where he resides.