Judaism: A Time of War
In the late Second Temple period, when the Sages divided up the Torah into the 54 weekly parashot with which we are so familiar today, they decreed that the 16th parashah would begin with the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:1), and would conclude with Amalek’s attack in the desert about six weeks later (Exodus 17:8-16).
This leads us to ask: why did our Sages decide to conclude Parashat Beshallach with Amalek’s attack? After all, Parashat Beshallach could just as easily have concluded with the previous paragraph, Moshe bringing forth the water from the rock at Rephidim (Exodus 17:1-7), in which case the next parashah would have begun with Amalek’s attack. Alternatively the whole episode with Jethro (chapter 18) could have been included in Parashat Beshallach, in which case the next parashah would have begun with the Children of Israel arriving in the Sinai Desert (Exodus 19:1).
Both of these would have constituted an equally natural break in the narrative. So why did our Sages decide to conclude the weekly reading with Amalek’s attack?
I suggest that there is a direct, even organic, connexion between the Exodus and Amalek’s attack, and that our Sages deliberately divided the parashot such that this parashah would begin and end with the same subject.
Shortly after the Children of Israel left Egypt, “it was told to the king of Egypt that the nation had escaped” (Exodus 14:5), which gave Pharaoh the impetus to mobilise his army in pursuit of these newly-freed slaves.
Though the Torah gives no indication who it was that told Pharaoh, the Midrashim provide two different explanations. According to Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach 2 s.v. vayashuvu vayachanu, Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochay 14:5, Targum Yonatan to Exodus 14:5, and Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 230, when Pharaoh sent the Children of Israel out of Egypt, he sent Egyptian officials with them (the Midrashim call them “aktorin”, the officials who were in charge of overseeing slaves and state property), whose task was to observe the Children of Israel during the Exodus.
Months earlier, during the plagues, Moshe and Aaron had demanded that Pharaoh give them leave for a three-day journey into the desert to worship HaShem (Exodus 3:18, 5:3, 8:23). So three days after the Exodus, when these Egyptian officials who were accompanying the Children of Israel saw that they had no intention of returning, they sent word to their king telling him that his erstwhile slaves had escaped permanently.
The other opinion, with which the Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochay (ibid.) continues, is: “And there are those who say that Amalek told him”.
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) cites this opinion in his commentary to the Torah, adding his own incisive insight. 243 years before the Exodus, when Jacob finished his 20-year servitude with his uncle Laban and left without asking permission from his uncle and father-in-law, “it was told to Laban on the third day that Jacob had escaped” (Genesis 31:22).
The Ba’al ha-Turim (commentary to Genesis 31:22) notes that the phrase “ki barach” (“that he had escaped”) occurs only twice in the Torah: “it was told to Laban…that Jacob had escaped”, and “it was told to the king of Egypt that the nation had escaped”. The Ba’al ha-Turim continues: “According to the Midrash, it was Amalek who told Laban that Jacob had escaped, and also told Pharaoh that Israel had escaped”.
(It is unclear which Midrash the Ba’al ha-Turim is referring to regarding Jacob and Laban. I have not been able to locate any Midrash which says that it was Amalek who told Laban that Jacob had escaped, although Targum Yonatan to Numbers 31:8 could be understood as suggesting this.)
And then the Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the phrase “ki barach” has the same numerical value (240) as Amalek.
Add to this that “Amalek and Jethro both gave advice to Pharaoh, but when Jethro saw that G-d had eradicated Amalek from this world and from the next world he reconsidered and repented” (Sh’mot Rabbah 27:6). Amalek’s attempts to exterminate Israel go way back – at least to the time that the Children of Israel were enslaved and persecuted in Egypt, and according to the Ba’al ha-Turim they go back earlier yet, to Jacob himself.
The two confrontations which Parashat Beshallach relates – the Egyptian Army and Amalek – combine to give us a crucial lesson for all generations.
The ways in which the Torah relates to these two nations, and commands us to relate to them, stand in complete contrast. The Torah tells us that G-d Himself continues the war against Amalek “from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16), and forty years later will command us to “remember what Amalek did to you when you were on your way out of Egypt…eradicate the memory of Amalek from beneath the Heavens, do not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
And the same Torah commands us “you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8)
Amalek is our eternal enemy and persecutor, while from the time of King Solomon, half a millennium after the Exodus, Israel enjoyed cordial relations with Egypt for centuries.
And yet, in Parashat Beshallach Egypt merits harsher treatment than Amalek. The Egyptian Army, down to the last man, were all drowned in the Red Sea, whereas such Amalekites as survived the desert skirmish (and the Torah gives no hint whatsoever as to their number) walked away free, surviving for future generations.
This apparent anomaly has a simple explanation. In time of war, the usual rules change. In time of war, “kill even the best of the [enemy] nation” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach, Masechet de-Vayehi 1, s.v. vayikach); or more specifically, “kill even the best of the Egyptians” (Tanhuma, Beshallach 8).
These Midrashim explain precisely why. Pharaoh and his army pursued the Children of Israel with their horses and chariots (Exodus 14:9), and the obvious question arises: Where did the Egyptians have all these horses from? Were all their animals not killed back in the seventh plague, the plague of hail?
Moshe had warned Pharaoh: “Behold – this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now, to pour down. So now, send the livestock and everything you have in the field; every man and beast who will be in the field, who will not be gathered into the house – the hail will come down on them and they will die” (Exodus 9:18-19).
Having been given this warning, the Egyptians were faced with a dilemma. Their religion saw animals as unclean, they were forbidden to bring animals into their houses. So they were confronted with an unavoidable decision: Do they remain loyal to their religion and their gods, or do they believe in Moshe and his message of the One G-d of the Hebrews? They no longer had the luxury of leaving the hard decisions to their king and his court. Now every individual Egyptian had to take responsibility for his own decision.
Sure enough, “whoever among Pharaoh’s servants that feared the Word of HaShem chased his servants and his livestock to the houses, and whoever did not take the Word of HaShem to heart left his servants and his livestock in the field” (ibid. vs. 20-21).
This implies that the only horses which survived the plague of hail were the horses of those Egyptians who genuinely believed in Moshe and in the Word of Hashem. Such Egyptians as rejected Moshe and his message, remaining loyal to Egyptian culture and religion – their horses died.
In truth – only the best of Egyptians still had horses.
But when the moment of reckoning came and their king needed horses to prosecute the war against the foreign Children of Israel – they naturally sided with their own nation against the enemy. And the obvious corollary is that in time of war, “kill even the best of the Egyptians” – even those who rejected Egyptian idolatry and believed in Moshe and in HaShem!
This is, of course, essential for understanding how to relate to Israel’s enemies (or potential enemies) today. Of course, not every single citizen of an enemy is inherently evil. But we must expect that in time of war, every citizen, and certainly every soldier, of the enemy nation will fight against us. In time of war, “kill even the best of the [enemy] nation” – not because he is necessarily evil, but because he is an enemy who will kill you and your people if he has the opportunity.
By including the Exodus, the drowning of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and the war against Amalek in a single parashah, our Sages showed us this with tremendous clarity.