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The Difference between Moab and Amalek

Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Devarim: 23:4-5: An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the congregation of Hashem, even their tenth generation shall not enter the congregation of Hashem. Because they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt…
Devarim, 25:17-19: Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way when you were leaving Egypt. That he happened upon you on the way…You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven – you shall not forget.

The Torah Portion outlines a number of Mitzvot related to nations who harmed the Jewish people in their time in the desert. Firstly, the Torah records the incident where the nations of Ammon and Moab refused to provide the Jewish people with much needed bread and water while they were in the desert. This action was greatly exacerbated by the fact that these nations owed their very existence to the Patriarch of the Jewish people, Avraham. Avraham saved the life of his nephew Lot, the progenitor of these two nations, when he was captured by the Four Kings. Yet, they demonstrated that they were very ungrateful people, when they refused to provide the basic needs of the Jewish people. Consequently, the Torah commands that it is forbidden for a male Moabite or Ammonite convert to marry into the Jewish people, and this even applies to descendants of such a convert ad infinitum.

At the end of the Portion, the Torah recalls the terrible actions of Amalek, who attacked the vulnerable Jewish people in the desert, when every other nation feared doing so, due to the great miracles that had occurred during the Exodus from Egypt. Because of this heinous behavior, God commands the Jewish people to wipe out the whole nation, and everything connected to them.

It would seem that Amalek’s actions and the consequential command to wipe them out, indicates that Amalek is considered far worse than Ammon and Moab. Yet, on analysis of further laws related to Amalek, a significant difficulty arises: It is evident from the Rambam1 and Ra’avad2 that the command to destroy Amalek does not apply if an Amalekite refutes the heretical and hateful attitude of his nation. Moreover, a genuine Amalekite convert is accepted into the Jewish people, and he is allowed to marry into the Jewish people3! How can it be that that a Moabite convert and his descendants are treated so harshly that they can never marry a Jew, yet an Amalekite may do so?

A possible answer to this question can be found by delving deeper into the root of the failings of these nations: The flaws of Ammon and Moab are in the realm of character traits. In their refusal to help the Jewish people in a basic way, they demonstrated that they were inherently ungrateful. This is such a negative character trait, that it is ingrained in this nation to the extent that the Torah commands that even if an Ammonite or Moabite converts, he can never marry Jews because that would cause their bad traits to infiltrate into the Jewish people.

In contrast Amalek’s shortcomings are not directly connected to bad traits, rather they are in the realm of outlook (hashkafa). Their belief system contradicts everything in the Torah, and their goal is to destroy the Jewish nation and what it represents. As bad as this is, since it is essentially an attitude and not an engrained trait, it is possible to uproot, and change one’s outlook. Accordingly, if an Amalekite shows that he has genuinely rejected everything that his nation of birth represents, then he is allowed to marry a Jew, because there is no concern that the negative aspects of Amalek will infiltrate into the Jewish people4.

This idea can be used to answer another difficult question that relates to Amalek. King Shaul was commanded to wipe out Amalek, and did destroy everyone with the exception of Agag5. Yet, a few months later, the Prophet tells us that David was fighting Amalekites6. Where did all these Amalekites come from? One possible approach is that just as an Amalekite can reject the outlook of Amalek and thereby remove from himself the obligation to be destroyed, a non-Amalekite can assume the outlook of Amalek and thereby be considered in the category of an Amalekite, and bring upon himself the obligation to be destroyed7.

The idea that one can join another nation is not limited to Amalek. The same approach can be used to explain how the nation of Midian was fighting the Jewish nation in the time of Gidon, when the Midianites were destroyed in battle with the Jewish nation in the desert.

If this is the case, the question arises as to if this idea applies to Ammon and Moab: If a person who is not a genetic descendant of Moab, for example, assumes the identity of a Moabite, is it forbidden for a Jew to marry him if he converts? This question is the subject of a dispute in the Gemara8, but the conclusion is that such a person does not assume the halachic status of a Moabite because Sencharib scattered all the nations, and so it can be assumed that a person who lives in Moab and calls himself a Moabite is not a descendant of the Moabites of the Torah, and therefore one can marry such a convert. Why here do we not say that he assumes the halachic status of a Moabite? The answer is based on the principle above, that the root problem with Moab is not their outlook but their character traits. Their bad traits are so deeply engrained that they will affect all future descendants. However, this does not apply to a person who is not genetically descended from the original Moabites. Hence, even if he identifies as a Moabite, and even assumes their attitudes, he is not included in the prohibition to marry a Moabite convert.

We have seen that while a nation’s inherent traits cannot be significantly changed, a nation’s outlook can be changed. On a personal level this teaches us that it is very important to develop a Torah true outlook through studying appropriate works on Jewish philosophy and mussar (self-growth)9. Doing this can also help him improve his character traits, since a good outlook can teach a person how to improve his character traits.

  1. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim, Chapter 6, Halacha 4.
  2. Hasagot HaRa’avad, Ibid.
  3. One proof given for this is that the Gemara tells us that descendants of the Amalekite, Haman, learnt Torah in Bnei Brak. There are Rabbinic sources that seem to contradict the Rambam’s ruling. See Mishbetsot Zahav, Shmuel Beit, pp.18-20, for an extensive discussion of this issue.
  4. In a similar vein, the Drashot HaRan explains that Avraham did not want Yitzchak to marry a member of the Canaanite nation because of their inherently bad character traits. Whereas, even though Lavan had very bad beliefs, Avraham wanted Yitzchak to marry his children, because their families’ inherent traits were not bad.
  5. Shmuel Aleph, Chapter 15.
  6. Shmuel Beit, Chapter 1.
  7. Rabbi Yisrael Reisman points out this only applies if any real Amalekites are still alive. Once they are all wiped out, then it is no longer possible to assume the Amalekite identity. Also, see Mishbetsot Zahav, Shmuel Beit, p.6 for an alternative answer in the name of the Siach Mordechai.
  8. Brachot, 28a.
  9. Possible examples of this are: Michtav M’Eliyahu by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler; Sichot Mussar by Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz; Alei Shor by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe; Torat Avraham by Rabbi Avraham Grodzinsky, hy”d’, Mashgiach of Slobodka, and father in law of Rabbi Wolbe and Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirt.



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