The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley
INTRODUCTION – From "Faith" to
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?
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
THE WAR WITH AMALEK – Punishment or
Amalek attack immediately after the water crisis at Refidim? Rabbinic thought immediately identified
a process of "cause and effect":
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
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
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
B. (11) Battle – part I: It concludes with "Amalek
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
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:
(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
(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
and when he dropped HIS
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
(13) And Yehoshua weakened
AMALEK and his nation by the sword.
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:
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.
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
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.
The hitting of the rock and the waters from Horev.
B1 – The war against
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].
comparison of the different branches of the structure reveals some interesting
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
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.
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.
 Available in the archives at www.vbm-torah.org.
 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.