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Yitro vs. Amalek: Purim 5766

Bible
Purim
Responsa by David Golinkin
The State of Israel

A few weeks ago we read the Torah portion of Yitro (Exodus 18), which tells the story of Moshe’s father-in-law Jethro. This coming Shabbat, we will read Parashat Zakhor (Deut. 25: 17-19), which tells the story of Amalek, while we will read the other version of that story on the morning of Purim (Exodus 17:8-16). This month I would like to compare the story of Yitro with that of Amalek and relate that comparison to our current situation in Israel.

Parashat Yitro begins with the story of Yitro, which appears right after the story of Amalek and before the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai . In this story, Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro joins the people of Israel in the wilderness and rejoices at their deliverance from the Egyptians. He then witnesses Moshe judging the people from morning till night and suggests that he delegate authority; major disputes should be judged by him and minor disputes by his deputies.

There is an ancient controversy among the commentators as to when the Yitro episode took place. R. Joshua says it took place before the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai while R. Elazar Hamodai says it took place after the giving of the Torah ( Mekhilta Yitro, p. 188).

It seems clear from internal evidence in the Torah that the Yitro episode actually took place after the giving of the Torah. But if this is true, why does it appear in chapter 18 immediately after the war with Amalek? Abraham Ibn Ezra replies (in his commentary to Exodus 18:1): “since the Torah tells above about the evil which Amalek did to Israel , it tells below about the good which Yitro did to Israel .”

Prof. Nahum Sarna (d. 2005), came to a similar conclusion in his book Exploring Exodus (pp. 128-129):

The story of the visit of Moshe’s father-in-law [Yitro] afford’s a striking contrast between the relationship and behavior toward Israel of the two neighbors – Amalek and the Kenites – Yitro’s clan. The one was viciously hostile and treacherous, the other friendly and helpful. The contrast is heightened by the literary juxtaposition.

Prof. M. D. Cassuto of Hebrew University (d. ca. 1953) took this contrast one step further by comparing the language of the Amalek story with the language of the Yitro story. He discovered that the second story is a mirror image of the first ( Commentary to Exodus , Hebrew version, p. 145), as is evident from the chart which follows:

A Comparison of the Amalek and Yitro stories in Exodus
Chapters 17-18

Amalek

Yitro

 

17:8 Amalek came and fought with Israel

 

18:5 And Yitro. came
18:7 each asked after the other’s welfare

 

17:9 Choose some men for us and go out and do battle with Amalek

 

18:25 Moshe chose capable men out of all Israel

 

17:9 Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill

 

18:14 While all the people stand about you from morning until evening

 

17:9 Tomorrow I will stand

 

18:13 On the morrow Moshe sat

 

17:12 But Moshe’s hands grew heavy

 

18:18 For the task is too heavy for you

 

17:12 so they took a stone and he sat on it

 

18:13 Moshe sat to judge the people

 

17:12 thus his hands remained steady until the sun set

 

18:13, 14 from morning until evening

 

17:16 The Lord will be at war

with Amalek throughout the generations

 

18:23 and his entire people will go home in peace

The nouns and the verbs of the two stories are almost identical, but in the Amalek story everything was done for the sake of war , while in the Yitro story, everything was done for the sake of peace!

 

Amalek –

eternal hatred
I Samuel 15:

the Prophet Samuel kills Agag, King of Amalek

 

Yitro – eternal love
Ibid., v. 6 before the battle, King Saul tells the Kenites – Yitro’s clan – to leave since they did kindness with the Israelites when they left Egypt .

 

So too in the rabbinic period:

Amalek – eternal hatred

The Sages instructed us to blot out the name of

Amalek and to read Parashat Zakhor

every year before Purim.

 

Yitro – eternal love

“And Moses went out towards his father-in-law” (18:7). Moses went out along with Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, the 70 elders.And some say the Shechinah (God’s presence went with them [to get Yitro]” ( Mekhilta Yitro, p. 193).

We now jump forward 3,000 years to the present. For most of its existence, the State of Israel and the Arabs were like Israel and Amalek – in a state of eternal hatred . For the past twelve years we have been moving very slowly towards a Yitro-like relationship. Amalekite relationships have no benefits – hatred begets hatred. Yitro-like relationships have all the benefits – love begets love. Indeed, this is understood by most of Israel ‘s political parties in the upcoming election. Most of Israel ‘s political parties agree that we must achieve peace with the Palestinians; they only disagree as to the proper tactics to be used to achieve that goal. This is not the time or the place to discuss those tactics. But the goal must be clear – we must aspire to a Yitro-like relationship with all our Arab neighbors. If we succeed, we will fulfill the prophecy of Yitro “our teacher” (18:23): “And this entire people will go home in peace”. So may it come to pass.


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from thSchocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: golinklin@schechter.ac.il.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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