Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 30 January 2021 / 17 Shvat 5781

Parashat Beshalach

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Education in the Wilderness

In this one Torah portion, the people have several formative experiences that will shape their understanding of their relationship with nature and with other nations.

The exodus from Egypt and the parting of the sea demonstrated to Israel for all time G-d’s special closeness at extraordinary moments. But only by their journey through the wilderness were they to learn that one can place his trust in G-d under all circumstances — such as for the provision of everyday necessities like food and drink.

Through the manna, they learn that survival requires trust in the Almighty along with a degree of disengagement from the anxiety of worrying about sustenance. The ruthless pursuit of security is not only futile, but can easily overtake life and leave no room for other aims and goals.

The manna also laid the foundation for the Sabbath, as it did not fall on the Sabbath, and people saw double provision on Friday. More than any other mitzvah, the Sabbath requires the unshakable conviction that G-d watches over the individual and over all the requirements of his daily livelihood. The entire experience of sustenance through manna taught that man’s own efforts will not yield mastery of nature and security in sustenance. Instead, only by following G-d’s Will and seeking a livelihood in accordance therewith — by not greedily hoarding, and by observing the Sabbath — will one realize that security in sustenance.

Their thirsting for water and questioning whether G-d is in their midst was met with water gushing from a rock — testimony that G-d is not bound by nature, but freely controls it.

Finally, after these experiences had taught the people about their relationship with nature and that independence from the forces of nature is possible only through subjugation to and trust in G-d, the experience of Amalek’s attack would teach them about their standing vis-à-vis other nations.

Amalek was the first to attack this fledgling nation — families, women, children, described as “weak and weary,” without any obvious threat or provocation. However weak they may have appeared, the power of G-d hovered over them so that all the other nations trembled — Philstia feared, Edom was stunned, Mo’av trembled, Canaan was dumfounded. (Shemot 15:14-15). Only Amalek had no fear of G-d. (Devarim 25:18) They chose the sword as their lot, seeking renown in the laurels of blood.

There is only one indomitable threat to the glory-seeking sword — as long as one nation’s heart keeps beating and pays no homage to it, it will not rest. Amalek does not hate nations that are its equal in power and armament, but rather regards their military preparedness as a sign of respect for its sword. Amalek fights them but honors them, since they acknowledge its power and shares its principles.

Amalek reserves its scorn for those who dare view the sword as dispensable — and instead place their trust in spiritual and moral power. This is the one enemy of Amalek, and the war between the sword and spirit will rage for generations. Israel, here, is taught that winning this war is only through the staff of Moshe, not through the sword of soldiers. The hands of Moshe are termed emunah (17:12), for it is the devoted trust of the people, awakened by the uplifted hand, that prevails over Amalek.

This war only weakened Amalek — the struggle would continue until the final defeat at the end of days, when that trust in G-d reaches full bloom.

  • Sources: Commentary Shemot 15:25; 16:8, 28; 17:9-12

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