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Shabbat Beshalach


Exodus 13:17-18

Ancient events modern lessons.

When Moshe led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, they headed due east. But after a few days of travel, they turned south. Initially, the Torah tells us they turned away from the quick coastal route for fear of encountering the Amalekites before they would have had time to train militarily and to cope psychologically with warfare.  

Then the Torah tells us that God led them back towards Egypt to give the Egyptians the impression that they were lost and confused. This was a ruse to lure Pharaoh and his army into the flooded marshland of the north part of the Red Sea where his chariots would get stuck in the soft ground. But in describing all this the Torah emphasizes the importance of tactics and planning rather than just relying on Divine Intervention. Miracles may happen, and faith does play a part in military victory, as well as human endeavor. 

After the Israelites crossed over the sea and Egypt was finally defeated, they celebrated with the Song of the Sea. A song of thanksgiving. Everyone participated. The women played their part and Miriam led them out to dance as well as sing.  It was a national expression of joy.  

A similar example of victory poetry is in the Haftarah. This one concerns the victory of Deborah,prophetess, and judge, and Barak, over Siserah, the Canaanite general and oppressor. In this story, too, water plays a crucial part in sweeping away the enemy. In both cases, it is possible to understand the events as Divine Intervention or as natural disasters. 

In the Song of Deborah, there is a full expression of delight at the gory death of Siserah at the hands of Yael and the decimation of his armies. And this raises the issue of whether one really should delight in the downfall of one’s enemies. Particularly if Proverbs 24 says “When your enemy falls do not rejoice.

We do indeed rejoice when our enemies fall. However, if it is only rejoicing at destruction, that indeed is vain. But if it is a celebration of life and gratitude for survival then that is something we should all do. Even so, the Talmud also imagines a scenario in which God silenced the Angels when they wanted to join in the celebrations over the defeat of the Egyptians. God replies, “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing too?”  (Talmud Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b). Rejoicing is a human response. But it needs to be tempered by regret at unnecessary loss too. Our enemies today rejoice in the brutality of killing us. We, on the other hand,  deeply regret it. But it is inevitable given the nature of the conflict and their tactics. And this is why the Torah asserts that in an existential threat, everyone, man, and woman is obliged to get involved one way or another (Talmud Sotah 44b).

The end of this week’s reading concerns the tribe of Amalek. They were the first people to attack the Israelites when they escaped the Egyptians. They came from behind, with no cause, and massacred women, children, and stragglers. We might understand the Canaanites attacking the Israelites. They wanted to defend themselves against the invading Israelite army. But Amalek had no such motive. They were not in the path of the refugees.

Moses then commanded Joshua to gather a fighting force together and during the ensuing battle, Moses sat on a hill overlooking the fight. When his arms were raised, pointing to the Heavens, the Israelites won. When his arms were lowered, they lost. When he felt weak, he was supported by Aaron and Chur, and they kept his hands up until Amalek was finally defeated. The Mishna asks what difference holding hands up in the air makes. And answers that we learn from the battle against Amalek that if the soldiers realized they were fighting a moral ethical battle, driven by the spirit that Moses was pointing upward to a higher power, they would be able to overcome the odds. But if they were simply thinking of a physical struggle, there would be no moral victory, just the survival of the fittest. Moses struggling to keep his arms up, symbolizes the fact that even those who were fighting needed support in other ways and is also important in winning a war.

In the case of Amalek, unlike the Egyptians, we were commanded to remember their hatred. It was a matter not just of slavery but of existence, of life or death. Amalek is the symbol of Anti-Semitism, irrational causeless hatred. The Canaanites on the other hand had their reasons to attack Israel, self-interest, self-preservation. That is why we were indeed commanded not to hate those enemies who attack us for their good reasons, but only those who want to destroy us. 

Shabbat Shalom