Balancing Beshalach

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Balancing Beshalach

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

A.                 INTRODUCTION – From "Faith" to "Doubt"

 

Beshalach's 116 verses read like two parallel yet conflicting stories.  The first 58 verses describe the growing relationship of trust and faith that develops between God and the Jewish people.  The approach of the Egyptians chariots raised questions among the fleeing slaves; yet at the Red Sea, all lingering doubts dissipated like the receding waters, as God vanquished the hated Egyptians for the last time.  Unabashedly, the people erupted in song:  "Who is comparable to you, Hashem, among the mighty!.. In kindness, you redeemed your people… Hashem will reign forever!"  The second 58 verses describe the disintegration of that relationship; from limited protest after discovering that the waters at Marah were undrinkable, to agitating against Moshe and Aharon as their provisions dwindled, to deliberate rebellion against God with the depletion of their water supplies.  Finally, they questioned whether God even dwelt among them - 'Does Hashem exist among us, or not? (17:7)' The parasha ends with Amalek's attack on the stragglers, and the counter attack organized by Moshe and led by Yehoshua.  We gasp for breath at the dizzying pace of the rise and fall of the people's stature.  The parasha that began with the people being herded towards the sea to avoid potential war with the Philistines ends with the removal of the protective clouds and the people engaged in actual battle with Amalek.  Upon its completion, we find ourselves asking: What, if anything, has been gained?

 

It is tempting to view the events of our parasha as a microcosm and foreshadowing of the ultimate detour that the Jewish people will eventually take.  One year later, having accepted the spies' slander, they will require an arduous 40-year journey through the desert to deserve another opportunity to enter the land.  In retrospect, the newly liberated slaves were incapable of displaying the faith and independence required to embody the Divine purpose in Israel.  However, one of the pitfalls a reader must beware of is the temptation to read the end of the story into the plot as it unfolds.  To decide whether the seeds of Israel's future failures are planted within our parasha, we shall first analyze the structure of the concluding battle with Amalek, and then discover how this battle is pivotal to understanding the larger structure of our parasha.

 

B.                 THE WAR WITH AMALEK – Punishment or Opportunity

 

Why did Amalek attack immediately after the water crisis at Refidim?  Rabbinic thought immediately identified a process of "cause and effect":

 

The two sections (of the Torah) were placed together as if Hashem stated "'I am always among you; I provide you with all your needs!" and yet you ask 'Does Hashem exist among us, or not?'  I swear that when the dog bites, you shall call for help.  Then, you will know where I am!" (Rashi 17:8) 

 

Loss of faith cannot be tolerated forever.  When disbelief overwhelms faith, punishment ensues. 

 

If we view Amalek solely as punishment for the people shortcomings, though, we have to explain the extraordinary ending to the battle:

 

Yehoshua overpowered Amalek and its people by the sword.  God said to Moshe: "Record this as a memorial in the book and recount it clearly to Yehoshua, for I will surely blot out the memory of Amalek from underneath the heavens!"  Moshe built an altar and called its name 'God is my banner', for he said: "a hand is upon the throne of God, a war for God against Amalek for all generations!" (Shemot 17:13-16)

 

If Amalek is solely an instrument of punishment, why is God so angry?  What provoked this eternal oath?  As in previous weeks, we shall analyze the structure of the story to decipher its meaning.  Like many Biblical narratives, we can identify the chiasm that organizes this story:

 

            A. (8-10) Amalek's initial assault, and preparations for the battle.

        B. (11) Battle – part I:  It concludes with "Amalek prevails".

                C. (12) Moshe's hands are heavy, and the solving of this problem.

         B1. (12-13) Battle – part II: It concludes with "and Yehoshua weakened Amalek…"

A1. (14-16) The battle's ramifications: of God's war with Amalek expands beyond this story.

 

Apparently, though the lifting of Moshe's hands to the heavens (an image we saw at the Red Sea), the battle will turn to Israel's favor. 

 

However, we can suggest a different structure to appreciate the real meaning of the text.  Rav Elchanan Samet presents the following breakdown of the story, based where the action occurs[1]:

 

ON THE BATTLEFIELD

ON THE MOUNTAINTOP

(8) And AMALEK came and waged war against Israel in Refidim.(9) And Moshe said to Yehoshua: Choose men for us and go out to fight AGAINST AMALEK.

 

 

Tomorrow I shall stand atop the mountain, with the staff of God IN MY HAND.

(10) And Yehoshua did as Moshe had told him, to wage war AGAINST AMALEK.

 

 

And Moshe and Aharon and Chur ascended to the top of the mountain.  (11) And it was, when Moshe raised HIS HAND

that Israel prevailed,

 

 

and when he dropped HIS HAND

AMALEK prevailed.

 

 

And Moshe's HANDS were heavy, and they took a rock and placed it under him and he sat upon it, and Aharon and Chur supported HIS HANDS, one on one side of him and the other on the other side.  And HIS HANDS were strong until the setting of the sun.

(13) And Yehoshua weakened AMALEK and his nation by the sword.

 

 

Ignoring the final verses, where their location is uncertain, we see a synchronic presentation of two separate stories that occur simultaneously.  A confrontation occurs below, and Moshe's entreaties on the mountain above.  Even the lengths of the two columns are similar.  Reading the two, however, we see that while we can read the battlefield story independently; we cannot to the same to the mountaintop narrative.  Rav Samet explains the significance of this as follows:

 

This means that the real event, as it takes place in the physical realm, can be understood alone – even if this understanding is not the full picture. The metaphysical situation, in contrast, cannot be understood alone; it exists only by virtue of its connection with the real situation on the battlefield.

 

No longer is the reader's focus solely on God's role.  Overt miracles no longer appear; instead, success is achieved though a partnership between God above (Moshe on the mountaintop) and man below (Yehoshua and the people).  We shall see that this lesson is our parasha's fundamental lesson.

 

C.                 REEVALUATING BESHALACH – The Balance Between Faith and Initiative

 

            Having seen how the battle against Amalek intentionally structures itself as the balancing and coordination between trust in God and human initiative, we can begin to appreciate the larger structure of the people's journey from Egypt to the destination of Har Sinai.  The Exodus from Egypt contains several stories that repeat: twice they encounter external enemies; twice they run out of water, twice they charged to pursue sanctity. We can structure the story as follows:

 

A – The Sanctification of the Firstborn (KADESH LI)
   B – The Splitting of the Red Sea
       C – The sweetening of the waters at Marah

             D, D1 – The arrival at the oasis of Eilim / The receiving of the Man at the wilderness of Sin.
        C1 – The hitting of the rock and the waters from Horev.
    B1 – The war against Amalek
A1 – The entry of the people into the covenant at Sinai as a GOY KADOSH – a holy nation. [Note that Yitro's arrival and the establishment of an organized judicial system precede this].

 

A quick comparison of the different branches of the structure reveals some interesting insights:

 

·        A,A1 - Upon leaving Egypt, only the firstborn were to be sanctified, as a remembrance of the plague of the firstborn.  Children were to be given limited instruction on specific rituals and historical events, and only upon the initiative of the questioners. By the time the Jewish people arrive at Sinai, they are all to all participate in the hearing of the Divine commands, and all the people are considered holy. They are to be active in the pursuit of knowledge.  The change in leadership from a single head who passively awaits the people's questions to an extensive group of individuals whose role is to both judge and inspire the people reflects this.

·        B,B1 - At the Red Sea, the Jewish people panic upon the approach of Pharaoh's army, so much that Hashem personally quiets them; only He will fight on behalf of the Jewish people:  "Hashem will battle (Hebrew root - L.CH.M.) for you, and you are to remain silent."   Salvation is achieved through a double miracle.  By Refidim, however, the Jewish people do not panic at Amalek's assault.  They physically fight the battle (L.CH.M.) with Amalek, yet remain connected to Hashem through the supplications of Moshe Rabbeinu.

·        C,C1 - In both stories where the Jewish people are supplied with water, Moshe takes wood upon the Divine command and provides the people with water. However, in the first story, Moshe does so with stagnant water, that will not accompany the Jewish people upon their journey. He personally apportions the water. The second time, the water is an unending flow, and accompany the Jewish people for 40 years in the desert. To receive the water, the people must actively run to the rock at Chorev.

 

How do the oasis at Eilim and the giving of the Man serve as the central focus of the story? I would suggest that the comparison we developed between the battles against Amalek as opposed to the Splitting of the Red Sea provides the clue. At the oasis in Eilim, for the final time, the Jews remain passive while Hashem provides their needs.        However, once their sustenance becomes the Man, while Hashem provides the food, the people become the active gatherers of their sustenance[2]. They demonstrate the commitment and connection with Hashem in two manners – through the equal sharing of the produce, and the refraining of gathering on Shabbat.  Hashem has granted the Jewish people the opportunity to become equal partners with him. Through the combination of human initiative and demonstrated faith, the people end our parasha with the potential to prove worthy of the Divine blessing that awaits those who collaborate with Hashem.

 



[1] Available in the archives at www.vbm-torah.org.

[2] The Rashbam (15:26) suggests that the turning point occurs earlier, at Marah, when the providing of water is combined with the first set of mitzvot given to the people:

There He set for them statutes and judgments; there He put them to the test: There at Mara, through the fabrication of a test - God made them thirst for water and then 'healed' the water for them - He began to demonstrate to them, that if they will keep the statutes and judgments which He will teach, He will provide their needs.