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

Chaos and hate – our outer and inner enemy

Chaos and hate – our outer and inner enemy.

Thoughts on Parashat Beshalach

Menachem Mirski

This week Torah portion contains stories that are famous and widespread in the entire western culture. It tells us about Pharaoh chasing after Israelites, to force their return to Egypt, splitting the Sea of Reeds; Israelites experiencing their first thirst and hunger in the desert, Moses bringing forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, manna raining down from the heavens and so on.

But today we will focus in the story told in the last verses of our Torah portion. They tell us the story of Amalek, who brutally attacked our people in Rephidim, but was fortunately defeated by Moses’ prayers and an army raised by Joshua. However, it’s just the beginning of Amalek’s and Amalekites story, which is already announced in the last verses of our parashah:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi. He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of the LORD!’ The LORD will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” (Shemot/Exodus 17:14-16)

In the Torah as well as the rest of the Bible, the people of Amalek occupy a unique position: they were among Israel’s enemies, but alone among these their enmity will last forever. It would by divine fiat be irreconcilable and only complete disappearance of the Amalekites would satisfy God’s anger. The necessity of their disappearance is strongly emphasized in the Torah: as many as three from 613 commandments enumerated by Maimonides concern Amalek:

598 Deut. 25:17 – Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites

599 Deut. 25:19 – Wipe out the descendants of Amalek

600 Deut. 25:19 – Not to forget Amalek’s atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert.

What Amalek and the Amalekites did in fact to Israelites? The rabbis believed that the Torah used ‘euphemistic language’ to describe what they did. The Talmud and Midrash fill in the details: the Amalekites raped, castrated and murdered the Jewish men (Midrash Tanchuma 10; Rashi on Deuteronomy 25:17). This was hardly a way to treat a people who just suffered hundreds of years of slavery and were wandering in a great desert.

There’s another question about it. Exodus 17:14 says that God himself will blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, whereas Deuteronomy 25:19 states that you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, and, Do not forget! Is this a contradiction? It is not and I will explain it below.

Indeed the Israelites failed in fulfilling these commandments numerous times, starting from king Shaul, who spared the life of king Agag for one day, even though he was commanded exterminate all the Amalekites, immediately:

Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (I Samuel 15:3)

Shaul “fixed his mistake”, but during that one night Amalek, as the Midrash tells us, conceived a son, which made the Amalekites survive. As a result of that we have then, centuries later, Haman the Agagite, who, in the Book of the Esther, wanted to exterminate all the Jewish people. Then we have the king Sennacherib, who, according to the Book of Isaiah erased the borders of peoples; have plundered their treasures, and exiled their vast populations. (Is 10:13). What happened then? According to traditional, rabbinic interpretation, the Amalekites have been spread among all the nations and it is called sometimes “the transmigration of Amalek”.

There are various interpretations regarding this issue: who are the contemporary Amalekites? How to recognize them? And so on. We will leave this aside here. What I would suggest in this drasha is the following: Amalek represents chaos; we and our tradition – order and the rule of the law. Amalek represents war and hate, whereas we and our tradition – peace and love. Amalek is an enemy of every decent and sensitive human being. And since there is a debate whether he is a real, personified enemy or our own, “internal enemy”, in the form of all our internal negativities, I will suggest that he is both.

In fact, in order to fight hate and chaos we must first overcome it in ourselves. Only then we will have enough strength for fighting them in the ‘external’ world, by having the ability to come out of the context of hatred and face it with our backs straight and our shoulders back. It does not mean simply to fight evil with good; no, the matter is not that simple. It depends on the balance of power, when facing evil directly. We can fight evil with good effectively only when there is a strong advantage of power on our side. If the forces of evil have a significant advantage of power over us the only thing we can do is run away from them. Otherwise we will become victims and that’s not the scenario we would like to embrace, at least, most of us. Thus we need to make sure that there’s enough power in us. If we lack it, we must necessarily get it from all possible sources. Thus we need to be united, since unity is one of the main things that power flows from.

Fighting the contemporary Amalekites, that is, all the dark powers in us and in the world is in fact divine-human enterprise. In my opinion that’s precisely the reason that the Torah states it twice and differently, firstly about God blotting out his name and then about our obligation to do so. I strongly believe that with the divine help we are all able to fight Amalek in us and in the external world. And that’s the goal, the most important goal of our time – to overcome hate and chaos.


Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski