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Vayishlach 5781: 'Til Death Do Us Part

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! Recently, I have been contemplating the concept of “archenemy” and no, this had nothing to do with family get togethers at Thanksgiving time. Incidentally, this is not the same as having a “nemesis.”

An archenemy is someone who seeks your absolute destruction; think Batman vs. Joker or Lex Luther and Superman (or, unfortunately Iran vs. Israel and most of the rest of the world). On the other hand, a nemesis is a rival – someone who motivates you to succeed and excel – think Magic Johnson and Larry Bird or Coke and Pepsi.

Rivalry should motivate one to grow in ways he wouldn’t have otherwise achieved organically. A prime example is when Nike, desperate for an advantage over a surging Reebok, signed a college basketball player named Michael Jordan and, as they say, the rest is history.

The same is true for individuals. Research shows that long-distance runners are about 5 seconds per kilometer faster when one of their top rivals is in the race. Competing against a rival fires up your motivation and pushes you to greater heights. If you build a supportive relationship with that rival, it can further elevate your performance.

Therefore, having an archenemy is very different from having a nemesis. If this distinction still seems confusing, just ask a woman in your life to explain it to you. Men often fail to grasp this concept and thus remain mired in mediocrity.

Women, however, have always intuitively grasped the nemesis/archenemy dichotomy. Most women have had at least one person in their lives whose seemingly sole purpose in life is to criticize her actions, compete for the attention of others, and generally drive her crazy. Often this is the woman's best friend. Seriously.

Historically, the Jewish people have also had an archenemy; the nation of Amalekites. A few months ago I wrote about the surprise attack that Amalek used to blindside the Jewish people as they left Egypt.

Our sages mention a very interesting insight regarding the Amalekite attack. In retelling the incident, the Torah uses the Hebrew word “korcha – attacked you.” The sages point out that this word has its etymological roots in the Hebrew word “kor,” which means cool.

In other words, through this attack the Amalekites “cooled off” the Jewish people. Meaning, after hearing and seeing all the incredible miracles that God had done for the Jewish people as they left Egypt (the ten plagues, splitting of the Red Sea, and utter defeat of the Egyptian army), all the other nations feared the Jewish people and wouldn’t consider fighting them. However, Amalek’s attacked “cooled them off” and showed the other nations that it was possible to mount a war against the Jewish nation.

The sages continue with the following analogy: There was a bath that was scalding hot to the point that it was unusable. One fellow came along and jumped into the bath and got severely burned. Nevertheless, once he jumped in he succeeded in cooling it sufficiently to be usable for others.

Likewise, Amalek’s suicidal attack on us was done with the express intent of “cooling us” to the point where other nations were able to conceive of the idea that they too could fight us. Thus, their purpose was the destruction of the Jewish people, even at the cost of their very own lives. I have seen the same argument made regarding Adolf Hitler – may his name be blotted out.

Hitler, it seems, made the decision to keep using the trains to transport millions of Jews to their deaths, instead of using them to resupply his troops on the Russian front who were desperately in need. Ultimately, they could not survive the harsh winter, the Germans lost that battle and that was one of the main turning points in the war.

Essentially, the Amalekites were the first to conceive of the concept of a “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD). Today, MAD is a understood a little differently – it is a military theory that deters the use of nuclear weapons between enemy states. The doctrine presumes that if one side attacked the other then those attacked would respond with equal or greater force. In effect, neither side could expect to survive a full-scale nuclear exchange as a functioning state and thus a tense peace would remain in place.

But nations aren’t merely born archenemies and yet the Amalekites attacked the Jewish people in a suicidal manner. What is the source of Amalek’s deep antipathy and hatred that drove them to attack, even at the very cost of their very lives? In this week’s Torah reading we find the answer.

“And Timnah was a concubine of Elifaz, son of Eisav, and she bore to Elifaz Amalek” (Genesis 36:12).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) relates that Timnah, who eventually became a wife to Elifaz (son of Eisav), was of royal lineage. Timnah was the daughter of kings, but she rejected her royal position in order to marry into the family of Abraham. (A modern equivalent would be King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom who rejected his royal position to marry an American divorcée.)

The Talmud goes on to explain that Timnah originally wanted to convert and marry into the house of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but was repeatedly turned away. Undeterred, she declared, “It is preferable to be a handmaiden to this nation than to be a noblewoman in any other nation.”

She therefore became a concubine to Elifaz who was from the house Abraham; he was Isaac’s grandson and Jacob’s nephew. Ultimately, her union with Elifaz led to the birth of Amalek. The Talmud seems to make a stunning criticism of our forefathers; “Why did she give birth to Amalek who caused such suffering to the Jewish people? Because they should not have rejected her.”

Yet, it is still difficult to fathom how someone who professed such admiration of the Jewish nation could birth a child who would grow up to be the archenemy of the Jewish people. In addition, Elifaz, who was the father of Amalek, was “raised on the lap of Isaac,” which was why he refused to do his father’s bidding and kill Jacob (Genesis 29:11).

How is it possible that a mother who gave up everything to connect with the Jewish people and a father who was the best of Eisav’s children could beget a child whose nation would seek the destruction of the Jewish people throughout time?

The most basic element of humanity is the need to connect. Rashi (Sanhedrin 99b) explains that the mistake of the forefathers was that they “pushed her (Timnah) away from the (sheltering embrace) of the Almighty and that they should have converted her.” In other words, even though they didn't want her to marry into the family they should not have rejected her desire to be connected to Hashem.

This concept is key: The most basic element of humanity is the need to connect. This is what drives the search for love and the search for a relationship with a “higher power.” Elementally, everyone wants and desires to “belong.” This is the basis for being a part of a community, a club, or a certain clique. It is critical to the development of mankind because being connected as individuals allows for a much greater whole.

This strength is expressed on the Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one. This means that the strength of the country stems from diversity becoming a unified entity.

This foundation of mankind, that of acceptance and connection, is vital to our emotional well-being. The flip side – being rejected – is devastating to our emotional well-being. Rejection leads to intense surges in anger and aggression. In 2001, the Surgeon General of the U.S. issued a report stating that rejection was a greater risk for adolescent violence than drugs, poverty, or gang membership.

This is why ideals that are often nearly identical in their source, once they have rejected one another (such as the Shiite and Sunni varieties of Islam), become mortal enemies – constantly trying to wipe each other out. The very existence of the other is a constant and debilitating reminder of the original rejection.

Our forefathers’ rejection of Timnah was so devastating to her that it far overwhelmed any appreciation she had for them. As Rashi points out, they should have at least encouraged her to be connected to Hashem, as this would have seemingly mitigated part of the rejection.

They did not, and therefore her only child, Amalek, made it his life’s mission to avenge that rejection and repay those who caused his mother pain. The seemingly minor act of rejecting Timnah is the source of 3500 years of Jewish persecution and suffering perpetuated by the nation of Amalekites.

Torah Portion of the Week

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

On a trip back to Canaan, Jacob meets his brother Eisav; Jacob wrestles with the angel. Then they arrive in Shechem. Shechem, the son of Chamor the Hivite, (heir to the town of Shechem) rapes Jacob's daughter, Dina. Dina's brothers, Shimon and Levy, massacre the men of Shechem. Rebecca (Rivka) dies; God gives Jacob an additional name, “Israel,” and reaffirms the blessing to Avraham that the land of Canaan (Israel) will be given to his descendants. Rachel dies after giving birth to Benjamin (Binyomin). Jacob's 12 sons are listed. Isaac dies. Eisav's lineage is recorded as is that of Seir the Horite. Finally, the succession of the Kings of Edom is chronicled.

Candle Lighting Times

(or go to

Jerusalem 4:00
Miami 5:11 - Cape Town 7:27 - Guatemala 5:13
Hong Kong 5:21 - Honolulu 5:30 - Johannesburg 6:30
Los Angeles 4:25 - London 3:38 - Melbourne 8:11
Mexico 5:39 - Moscow 3:41 - New York 4:10
Singapore 6:38 - Toronto 4:23

Quote of the Week

He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.
— Benjamin Franklin

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Edward Grodsky



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