Beshalach: The Appropriate Response

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17 Jan 2008

It has been the new world order for a very long time, an unfortunate human-created reality.

Incredibly, we are all victims of the original sin! (Yes, this is Judaism)

In Rambam’s classic formulation, it’s been a different existence since the primordial sin – the battle lines shifting from choosing between truth and falsehood to discerning good from bad. While the former is objective; the latter is confusing; whereas the Gan Eden world yields a lone question of will I do the right thing, the paradise-lost world must first determine what is right before proceeding to the question of will. New man constantly struggles with the issue of determining propriety in the most basic circumstances. For example,

What is the right …

In a world of nuances and shades, questions of the “what is right” variety never end!

Consider a straightforward issue emerging from our parsha, one which features two fierce adversaries. Amalek and Mitzrayim (Egypt). In countering these terrible forces, what should be our Jewish weapon of choice: Prayer or action? Surely, both are significant, but which is primary? Our parsha seems to confuse us:

Caught between a body of water and vengeance seeking Egyptians, Moshe and Bnei Yisrael pray (Shemos, 14:10,14 cf. Rashi). Hashem responds:

Mah titzak eilai, dabeir el Bnei Yisrael v’yisau – Why do you cry to me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael and let them travel onwards.

Rashi elucidates:

Now is not the time for elaborate prayer.

In countering Egypt, Hashem has little desire for prayer; Action is the call of the moment.

And yet … shortly after the Jews emerge from Yam Suf, Amalek approaches. A few men are chosen, Moshe sits on a rock, hands held high, ultimately supported by Aharon and Chur. As Moshe’s hands, so goes the battle. What do uplifted hands have to do with battle success? Mishna Rosh Hashana (29a) elucidates:

“And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed…” (Ex. 17:11). But could the hands of Moses make war or lose a war? It is rather to teach you, As long as Israel was looking upwards and subjecting their hearts to their Father in Heaven – they prevailed, and if not – they fell.

Moshe whose outstretched hand represents the power of prayer, utilizes it as the weapon of choice against Amalek. Prayer, so apparently irrelevant in fighting Egypt, becomes critical in battling Amalek. What gives?

A potential solution must focus on the distinction between differing nature of the Mitzrayim and Amalek foe.

Mitzrayim the society, represents the paragon of perverse sexual and sundry improprieties (Vayikra 18:3, cf. Rashi). Pleasure sits atop its pyramid of values. Bnei Yisrael who grew up in that cradle is impacted, lusting several times for the good ole days back in Egypt; their meat cravings (cf. Bamidbar 11) reveal their vulnerability. How does one wage battle against the primal yetzer hara?

A teacher wanted to demonstrate the evils of liquor to his grade 5-class, so he conducted an experiment with a glass of water, a glass of whiskey, and two worms. The teacher put the first worm in the glass of water. The worm wiggled about, happy as can be. Then he put the second worm in the whiskey. It writhed painfully, sank to the bottom, and died. “Now, what lesson can we learn from this experiment?” he asked the class. One bright student responded, “Drink whiskey and you won’t get worms.”

In the battle against the narcissistic yetzer hara, intellect is never the primary weapon. Our powerful and creative logos can justify most anything – even when we know what is right. Recently, I heard of an individual who promised not to drink and drive – so he only drank at red lights! Ultimate truth and essential purpose can become casualties of our bias. Immediate and swift action, not meditative prayer or intellectual study, is the only response to the Egyptian allure.

Amalek, however represents a philosophical challenge to Bnei Yisrael’s purpose in this world. Amalek contests Bnei Yisrael’s chosenness. A clash of theology and a radically different look at life and its meaning, is the nature of the Amalek enterprise. Amalek (descendants of Eisav) also claims the mantle of first hood. They are reishis goyim amalek. (Cf. Bamidbar 24),

Amalek’s mission is to eradicate any God vestige from world. Thus, the Divine throne can’t be complete if they still exist (cf. Rashi, Shemos 17:16). Amalek, whose gematria (Jewish numerology) value is safeik insinuates doubt in the world. They foist upon the weak within our ranks – the ones who are unsure of God’s presence (1).

The Amalek theology is still alive and well. In a recent controversy over high school science curricula, Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of the New York Times editorial board, savaged critics of materialistic Darwinism on philosophical grounds, because they seek “to preserve the myth that there is a separate, divine creation for humans that separates us from animals” .But “there is a destructive hubris, a fearful arrogance to this myth,”

Our response to the Amalek challenge must be a renewed search and confirmation of Hashem’s presence in every nook and cranny of our lives. To Amalek we respond with internal prayer and strengthened Torah study – reinforcing our emotional and intellectual confidence in our unique relationship with the Almighty. To the extent that Hashem is more present, Amalek withers away.

Two challenges. Two responses. May Hashem give us the wisdom to discern carefully and choose correctly.

1. cf. Shemos 17:7 Hayeish Hashem bikirbeinu im ayin

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.