It is common practice in professional sports that towards the end of the regular season, when the playoff picture has already become clear, for teams to bench their starters and to start their second string. Obviously, when a playoff spot is on the line, a team will start its best players. But when the outcome of a game is meaningless, why risk injuring a starter? Why not give the substitutes a chance to show what they can do?

Am Yisrael have safely crossed the Red Sea and their next stop is Mount Sinai, where they will receive the Torah and accept Hashem as their one true king. Suddenly they are attacked by the Amalekites, a vicious nomadic warrior tribe descended from Yaakov’s nemesis, Esav. Moshe’s response is surprising [Shemot 17:9]: “Moshe said to Joshua, ‘Choose men for us and go out and fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of Hashem in my hand’”. Am Yisrael have just been blindsided. They have suffered multiple casualties[1] and they need to mount an immediate counter-attack. Not only does Moshe wait a full day before acting, but he sends his aide-de-camp, his protégé Joshua, to lead Am Yisrael in battle. Now’s your big chance! Why doesn’t Moshe lead the charge? It’s “money time”. This is no time to bench Brady[2].

The Midrash takes Moshe to task for this decision. In fact, one Midrash[3] asserts that Moshe lost the right to enter the Land of Israel as a direct result of his appointing Joshua to lead the fight against Amalek. This is a bizarre assertion because the Torah clearly states later on that Moshe was banned from entering Israel as a result of his behaviour at Mei Meriva, where he hit the rock instead of speaking to it.

A fascinating explanation is offered by Rav Binyamin Sofer, writing in “Ktav Sofer”. The Ktav Sofer begins by quoting a Midrash that explains why Moshe chose specifically Joshua to lead Am Yisrael in battle. Recalling that Joshua was from the tribe of Ephraim, the son of Joseph, the Midrash teaches that as Amalek was described as [Devarim 25:18] “not fearing Hashem”, they could be best defeated by a descendant of Joseph, who told his brothers [Bereishit 42:18] “I fear Hashem”. The Ktav Sofer finds this suggestion seemingly ludicrous, as Amalek was eventually defeated by the entire Jewish nation looking skywards at Moshe’s outstretched arms and by doing so subjugating their hearts to Hashem. Now that’s the kind of fear of Hashem that wins wars. What extra ingredient did Joshua add?

The key, teaches the Ktav Sofer, is in understanding Amalek’s goal in waging war. Amalek did not wage war against Am Yisrael – they waged war against Hashem. While this war was fought by attacking Hashem’s earthly proxy, Am Yisrael, Amalek’s goal was the defeat of Hashem and His ethics as manifested in His Torah. The Ktav Sofer offers two proofs for his hypothesis: [1] Amalek “did not fear [specifically] Hashem”, and [2] the Torah [Shemot 17:16] promises “an eternal war of Hashem against Amalek”. Amalek’s punishment –complete decimation – is so severe precisely because his target was Hashem.

Rav J.B. Soloveichik leverages this innovation to explain why the war against Amalek was waged by humans wielding swords and spears and not with supernatural means. In the war against the Egyptians, Am Yisrael are told [Shemot 14:13] “Sit tight and watch the salvation of Hashem”. Why was Amalek different? Rav Soloveichik explains that Pharaoh’s subjugation of Am Yisrael was based on economic considerations. Egypt had a slave-based economy, such that freeing their slaves would result in economic chaos. Amalek, on the other hand, “hated the Jewish religion, the Jews’ uniqueness, their determination to cling to their faith and uphold Torah”. When the battle is waged against Am Yisrael, Hashem leads the charge to defend His nation. But when the battle is waged against Hashem, it is Am Yisrael who must take the initiative and lead the battle.

Back to the Ktav Sofer. As Amalek’s war was being waged against Hashem, Am Yisrael had to fight in order to defend Hashem’s honour. Their personal feelings were irrelevant. They had to detach themselves from their pain and anger and from their sense of indignation at the unprovoked attack that had targeted the old and the frail. They had to constantly remind themselves they were fighting for a Higher Cause. Indeed, each time they looked skywards at Moshe’s arms they were spurred to remember Whom they were fighting for.

Moshe hailed from the Tribe of Levi. Levites have passion etched deep in their tribal DNA. Rabbi YY Rubinstein shows how this emotion runs like a single thread throughout the Torah: First, Levi, along with his brother, Shimon, kill the entire city of Shechem, after its leader kidnaps and rapes their sister, Dina. In the episode of the golden calf (egel), the Levites execute three thousand idolaters. Finally, Moshe’s great nephew, Pinchas, kills the prince of the tribe of Shimon, who is flagrantly sleeping with a Moabite woman. A Levite’s blood boils at the sight of injustice. Descendants of Joseph, on the other hand, have a more benign genetic structure. Joseph was brutally mistreated by his brothers. They threw him into a pit naked, to die there of exposure and thirst, and after a change of heart, they “let him off easy” and sell him into slavery to a band of Ishmaelites. Years later, they travel to Egypt to buy grain and they come face to face with Joseph. Joseph recognizes them but they do not recognize him. Joseph, as second in command to Pharaoh, is in a position to do with them as he pleases. And yet he does not. Instead, he tells them “I fear Hashem”. He sees a glimpse of the Divine Hand that has been guiding history and he understands that all that has transpired is part of a plan that is so much bigger than he is. And so he conquers his own pain and his own indignance. He tries to comprehend his role in the bigger picture and he does all he can to further the Divine Plan as he understands it. Moshe, from the Tribe of Levi, found it impossible to detach himself from his emotions so that he could fight Hashem’s battle against Amalek. Joshua, from the Tribe of Ephraim, had no such problems. Moshe understood this and so he sent Joshua to lead the troops.

Nearly forty years later, the people come to Moshe and ask for water. Moshe is infuriated and he hits the rock. The Rambam teaches that Hashem prevented Moshe from leading Am Yisrael into the Land of Israel because of his display of anger. As far as the Ktav Sofer is concerned, this just completes the circle: When Am Yisrael ask Moshe for water at Mei Meriva, they tell him [Bemidbar 20:4-5] “Why have you taken Hashem’s flock to the desert to die of thirst? Why have you taken us out of Egypt?” It is clear that their dispute is not with Moshe, it is with Hashem, and so Moshe has a responsibility to face the situation with cold logic. He has a responsibility to tell himself “I fear Hashem”. But he just can’t. The same unbridled passion from which Moshe knew he could not detach himself in the war against Amalek eventually caused him to die alone on a mountaintop overlooking the land to which he dedicated his life but would never enter.

Sara Yael Hirschhorn recently wrote an article titled “Israel doesn’t cause anti-Semitism. Anti-Semites do.” Overt anti-Semitism is unacceptable among the progressive humanists of the twenty-first century. They posit that a person is completely free to choose who he is and who he wants to be. His choice of religion is personal and is not open for discussion. That said, it is entirely acceptable to be anti-Israel. After all, Israel was born in sin. It dispossessed the original land owners and today it brutally oppresses innocent Palestinians. Hitschorn’s point is that Anti-Israel has become a proxy for anti-Semitism. Israelis are not despised because we build settlements or because we have stolen someone’s land. We are despised because we are Jewish. When war is waged on Israel, it is, in truth, being waged on Hashem. Following the lead of the Ktav Sofer, all of Am Yisrael must run to her defence. We cannot sit detached and wait for miracles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] See Rashi on Devarim [25:18].

[2] There is no metaphor more fitting than the one used here. The fact that this metaphor is not universally understood is a stain upon mankind.

[3] See the Mechilta on Shemot [17:14].