Parashat Beshalach

Love for Freedom is Born of the Hardships of Life

Thoughts on Parashat Beshalach

 Menachem Mirski

Difficult realities create strong people. If they are smart and righteous enough they build better reality for their children. As the time and development progresses, the new generations do not have to face the harsh reality their grandparents faced. Life, in general, becomes easier and more pleasant. Over time, an easy and pleasant life tends to create people that are less strong or simply weak – after all, they didn’t live through difficult times. They tend to be narcissistic, entitled and often believe that every little discomfort is oppression and a danger to their freedom. In fact, they are the first to fall into slavery, because they would rather give up their freedoms than face harsh reality in which they could only count on themselves.

In our parasha for this week, Israelites, after departing from Egypt, face two battles: the first one with Egyptians, the second one with Amalekites. But in fact, the Israelites do not fight the first battle – God fights for them, performing miracles and defeats the Egyptians by drowning their chariots in the Sea of Reeds. There are several rabbinic explanations for why this happened. Ibn Ezra points out that the Israelite generation that left Egypt, despite being armed, was unfit to fight their masters:

They had been trained from youth to bear the Egyptian yoke, and suffered feelings of inferiority. How then could they fight their masters? They were indolent and untrained in warfare.

Another explanation, given by Chasam Sofer, says that it would have been unethical for the Children of Israel to kill the Egyptians themselves. The Torah here teaches us proper conduct. The Israelites did not fight the Egyptians face to face because of the haven they had found in Egypt throughout the hundreds of years they had dwelled in that land. Egypt was what it was, but other places might have been worse. Another lesson given by Chasam Sofer is that we must not wield an avenging sword when we are on the land that is not ours.

Another battle Israel fights is the battle with Amalekites. Here the situation is different. The Israelites, led by Joshua, fight the enemy face to face and the Eternal One only supports them:

Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set. And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword. (Ex 17:10-13)

One of the reasons Israel had to fight this battle alone was because the Israelites, for the fourth time already, were murmuring against Moses and doubting God’s protection. Literally, the minute they say “Is the LORD present among us or not?” (Ex 17:7) Amalek comes and starts attacking them. It is a form of punishment. But this punishment is meant to bring blessing. From now on, the Israelites must become independent and wage their wars themselves, only with God’s help. It is the beginning of their transformation from a weak people with slave mentality to a nation that is strong, capable of self-defense, self-governance and independence.

The entire desert experience is thus aimed. Harsh realities Israelites face from now on serve for physical and spiritual cleansing. Israelites need to get rid of their weaknesses and their slave, victimhood mentality. It is precisely this mentality that causes them to blame Moses and Aharon for every misfortune they face in the desert. They expected Moses to be like Pharaoh in their minds: an Almighty tyrant who, at the cost of their freedom, provides them with livelihoods. That’s why whenever Moses disappointed them they wanted to immediately go back to Egypt. But Moses was not like Pharaoh, he was the opposite: he was not a tyrant, he gave them freedom. He did not constantly satisfy their needs, in fact he exposed them to a really harsh reality. But at the same time he opened up opportunities for them so that they could, with their own effort, satisfy them themselves. Rambam summarizes the desert experience of the Israelites as follows:

God wisely led them around the desert until they had learned courage. As is known, the austere life of the desert, without human comforts and conveniences, such as bathing and the like, make one brave, while a luxurious existence fosters cowardliness. There in the desert, a generation was born, unaccustomed to degradation and slavery.

According to Rambam, a fighting spirit and love of freedom develop from toil and hardship, from lack of pleasures and conveniences of life. This is why God led His people through the desert before bringing them into the Land.

It is the harsh conditions and overcoming challenges that bring great joys in human life. The feeling of satisfaction that stems from it stays with us forever, shapes our mindset and our views.

The danger of falling into slavery never goes away. There are enough tyrants and potential tyrants in the world. Let us be careful, they always make great promises and guarantee to help us and meet our basic needs. This is their hallmark and they often succeed in that. Our freedom comes from meeting our own needs, from toiling the land for ourselves, from taking nothing.

The only thing they want from us is our freedom. But we will never give it away as long as we take care of ourselves, as long as we are strong, capable of self-defense, self-governance and independence. As long as we do this we will always be free.

Shabbat shalom

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA