PARASHAT VAYISHLAH: Timna – The price of rejection

Why should the chronicles of Esau interest someone learning the Bible?

‘JOSHUA FIGHTING Amalek,’ print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations at St. George’s Court. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘JOSHUA FIGHTING Amalek,’ print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations at St. George’s Court.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlah, tells us about the life of our patriarch Jacob, during the 17 years between the birth of Joseph to the time he was sold into slavery by his brothers. We read about the journey Jacob took with his wives and extended family from Haran to Canaan; about Jacob’s mysterious struggle with the angel that culminated in getting another name – Israel; about the complicated encounter between the brothers-adversaries, Jacob and Esau, that surprisingly ended in peace; about the sad story of Jacob’s daughter Dinah who was kidnapped and raped by the people of Shechem, and about the rescue mission conducted by her brothers, Simeon and Levi; about Jacob’s journey from Shechem to Hebron, and the death of his beloved wife Rachel during Benjamin’s birth and her burial along the side of the road.
At the end of the portion, there is a chapter titled “the chronicles of Esau” which details his descendants and the kings who ruled in Edom, the land where Esau and his family resided.
Why should the chronicles of Esau interest someone learning the Bible? Commentators have suggested a variety of reasons. We will suffice with saying that the Torah positions the chronicles of Esau in contrast to the chronicles of Jacob, with Esau’s history being summarized in one chapter, and Jacob’s spreading out over at least 10 chapters. We can surmise from this regarding the relative impact of Jacob’s chain of generations versus Esau’s.
In the list of Esau’s chronicles, the name of one unknown woman stands out: Timna. This woman’s name appears twice in this chapter. At first, it says: “And Timna was a concubine to Eliphaz, son of Esau, and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek” (Genesis 36:12).
From this we understand that Timna was a semi-legal wife married to Esau’s son. Their son, Amalek, would later represent a highly negative character when the nation named for him would wage battle with the Jewish nation leaving Egypt. This earned it a severe rebuke leading up to our commandment to erase it from the earth.
The second mention of Timna includes an important biographical detail. The Torah talks of the kings who ruled in Edom before Esau conquered the land: “These are the sons of Seir the Horite, the inhabitants of the land: Lotan... and the sister of Lotan was Timna” (Genesis 36:20-22).
It turns out that Eliphaz’s mistress and the mother of Amalek was not so unknown. Actually, she was the daughter of the local ruler in Edom. At this point, our radars go up. What is the story behind this woman and why is it important for us to know it? The Babylonian Talmud provides further detail to this story, revealing Timna’s life story and even learning an important lesson from it: Timna was the daughter of kings and sought to convert. She came before Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they did not accept her. She went and became a concubine of Eliphaz, son of Esau, and said, referring to herself: It is preferable to be a maidservant for this nation and not be a noblewoman for another nation.
Ultimately, Amalek emerged from her and that tribe afflicted the Jewish people. What is the reason that the Jewish people were punished by suffering at the hand of Amalek? It is due to the fact that they should not have rejected her when she sought to convert.
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, page 99.) This sheds a new light on Timna and turns her into a symbol of devotion for the sake of faith. This woman was royalty and could have herself become a ruler.
She was fascinated by the faith and lifestyle of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and chose to follow them. But the patriarchs rejected her. She did not despair and instead chose to live the difficult life of a concubine to Eliphaz, the son of Esau, just to be able to somehow join the family of Abraham.
The patriarchs’ rejection of Timna came with a steep price. Centuries later, following the Exodus from Egypt, the descendants of her son, Amalek, made the lives of the Jewish people miserable. To this day, “Amalek” represents hatred of Jews and the persecutions we have suffered for generations.
So, what is the lesson we are meant to learn from this painful story? The rejection of any person, particularly if the rejection is of spiritual significance, should never be done haphazardly. We must carefully examine the good and pure intentions of the person before us, check if he or she is indeed honestly and courageously seeking to devote himself to a life of profound faith, as Timna was willing to surrender her social status in order to join the faith of Abraham; and if so we must help him move forward and transcend.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.