What can we learn from ancient Jewish texts about the current distressing and frightful geo-political situation so filled with war, refugees, mass shootings and terrorist attacks?
I think a lot, and it is often surprising where insight can be found. For example, I was recently reminded that Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, stated the principle that all the verses of the Torah are holy, no exceptions. (1)
Timna (2001) oil on canvas/wood (59 X 50) by Janet Shafner (http://janetshafner.com)
Maimonides chooses Genesis 36:12 as one of his examples of a lowly, ignored line of the Torah. It says, “Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Elifaz…” Now, Maimonides was a very smart guy and even though it’s buried in a long, boring, list of “so and so begat so and so, who begat so and so, etc, etc.,” this verse is actually pretty interesting; so interesting that the Talmud, several centuries after the Torah, asked who this Timna was — and then they told a story about her.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) says that Timna was actually a princess (they astutely note that there is another reference to Timna in a nearby list of princes and princesses). Well, then, they ask, how did this princess wind up being a lowly concubine?!
Timna, the rabbis said, was indeed a princess, but she decided that she wanted to join with the people of Abraham. Perhaps she was impressed with the new idea of One God. We don’t know. But, for some reason, the family of Abraham rejected her. Having given up her royal life she looked around for someone, anyone, related to Abraham’s family who would take her in. Esau’s son was as close as she got and then only as a concubine, not even a regular wife.
We can imagine the pain and shame and anger that she might have had about this whole situation. Then we read the second half of the verse: “Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Elifaz, and she gave birth to Amalek.” In Jewish lore Amalek becomes a notorious tribe, the archetypical enemy, a symbol of pure evil and senseless hatred. Amalek is known to attack the children of Israel at their most vulnerable and weakest points. Amalek simply wants to destroy, ruin and cause pain. Amalek likely knew the story of his mother’s real identity and yet he found himself with the terrible, lowly position as the son of a concubine, the bottom of the heap. He must have felt even greater shame, frustration and anger. We can imagine his feelings slowly metastasizing within him and turning into a violent and cruel hatred.
The Talmud concludes its story by saying that the family of Abraham shouldn’t have rejected Timna.