‘A Good Defense’ Parashat Beshalach 5783
Days after crossing the Reed Sea into the Sinai wilderness, the Jewish People are attacked by the Nation of Amalek. After sustaining some initial casualties, the Jewish People miraculously defeat the aggressors when Moshe ascends a hill and holds his hands skywards. Subsequently, Amalek has become a sort of nemesis to the Jews. G-d tells Moshe that He will [Shemot 17:14] “surely blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens”. The Torah specifies a positive commandment to [Devarim 25:19] “blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven – do not forget!” It is admittedly strange that we are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek when, regarding the Egyptians, a nation that engaged in slavery and genocide, we are commanded [Devarim 23:8] “Do not abhor an Egyptian, for you were once slaves in his land”. Why has Amalek, and not Egypt, become our nemesis?
This question is discussed by quite a large number of commentators. Rashi, in his commentary on Devarim [25:18], explains that Amalek was the first nation to attack the Jewish People after they became a nation. After defeating Egypt, the world’s only superpower, the Jewish People were considered invincible. No one dared stand in their way. Amalek, while losing the war, succeeded in demonstrating that the Jewish People were vulnerable. The rest of the world took notice and the Israelites suddenly became a valid target. The damage incurred by Amalek could never be remedied and for this reason they were crowned as our eternal nemesis.
Let’s take a closer look at the facts as they are presented in the Torah. The war with Amalek begins with the words [Shemot 17:8] “Amalek came (va’yavo) and fought with Israel at Rephidim”. Where did Amalek “come” from and why is it relevant? Some commentators suggest that Amalek was a nomadic tribe who came and went while others suggest that Amalek lived far away and attacked the Israelites even though they were not under any kind of threat. These commentators suggest that the fact that Amalek travelled such a great distance for the sole purpose of attacking the Jewish People is precisely the reason that the Torah demands their annihilation. I would like to take a different path. After the initial battle, in which Amalek gains the upper hand, G-d tells Moshe [Shemot 17:9] “Choose troops and go out (tzeh) and do battle with Amalek”. What does the word “go out” come to add? The Torah states that when the Jewish People left Egypt, they were given Divine Protection in the form of [Shemot 13:21] “a pillar of cloud by day… and a pillar of cloud by night”. Our Sages in the Midrash teach that the pillar of cloud was a sort of Iron Dome, intercepting any weapon that happened to be fired at the Israelite camp. Rashi suggests that the troops were to “go out” from the safety of the cloud and to bring the battle to Amalek.
We can take Rashi’s explanation another step by proposing that the “going out” of the Jewish People was a remedy for the “coming in” of Amalek. There is a common misconception that the defence posture of the State of Israel today is based on the efficiency of its missile defence systems. If we can shoot down the rockets that are fired on the Israeli population centres by the Hamas and by the Islamic Jihad, then there is no pressing reason for an incursion into Gaza. Why risk soldier’s lives if there is no risk to our citizens? Nothing could be further from the truth. War is won by imposing one’s will upon the enemy. A knight with an impenetrable suit of armour can go into battle and not sustain even a scratch but he will not emerge victorious unless he is equipped with a sharp sword. The reason that the lessons of the war against Amalek have been eternalized is because that war was archetypical. Balaam prophesizes [Bemidbar 24:20] “Amalek is the first of the nations”. The war against Amalek set precedents for all future wars. The lessons of that war must be internalized. If we believe that we can let our enemies come to us, then we are mistaken. We must go out and take the war to the enemy. This can explain why the positive commandment to eradicate Amalek is still in effect today, even while the nation of Amalek has long disappeared. We must constantly remind ourselves that war, while horrific, is sometimes a necessary evil. The best offense is not a good defence. The best offense is a good offense.
This explanation can shine light on another verse in the Portion of Beshalach. After G-d saves the Jewish People at the Reed Sea, Moshe leads the nation in the “Song on the Sea (Shirat HaYam”), thanking and extolling G-d for His beneficence. After the song is finished, we are told [Shemot 15:20] “Then Miriam the prophet… picked up a drum, and all the women went out (va’tetzena) after her in dance with drums” and the women proceed to sing yet another Song of Praise. Here, too, the Torah uses the word “went out”. Compare this with a verse describing our matriarch, Leah, who has purchased from her sister, Rachel, the right to sleep with their husband, Jacob [Bereishit 30:16]: “Leah went out (va’tetze) to greet him”. Rashi comments that Leah was fond of going out and this would eventually get her into trouble. Why does the Torah laud Miriam and the Jewish women for “going out” when it takes Leah to task for doing the same thing? When Pharaoh understands that by freeing his slaves he has doomed the Egyptian economy, he sets out in pursuit. The Israelites find themselves in a vise, with the raging sea on one side and the Egyptians closing in on the other. Fearing the end is near, they cry out to G-d. Moshe tells them [Shemot 14:13] “Stand by and witness the deliverance which G-d will work with you today”. The victory at the Reed Sea was a purely defensive battle. All the Israelites did was to run in and out of the sea as fast as their legs would take them. The Israelites did not wins – the Egyptians lost. Miriam and the rest of the women understood that this was a negative precedent and they “went out” to make the necessary course correction. If we want to defeat our enemies, then we must go out and face them. Our Sages took notice of their behaviour, teaching that because of the merit of our righteous women, our forefathers left Egypt.
This is not to say that I am, Heaven Forbid, against the idea of missile defence. Iron Dome and other systems like it have saved countless lives in Israel and prevented injury and property damage. Without Iron Dome, Israel would be a different country, indeed. I can remember the Second Lebanon War during the summer of 2006 in which one million Israelis – my wife and children included – fled the north of the country to escape more than four thousand Hezbollah rockets that rained down upon us for six weeks. Nevertheless, the Torah commands always to remember Amalek and the way in which he was defeated – not by the Cloud of Glory, not by the Pillar of Fire, not by being drowned in the waters of the sea, but by the hands of Moshe. May it be the Will of G-d’s that He bless us with the words of King David [Psalms 29:11] “May G-d bless His nation with courage”, and only then, “May G-d bless His nation with peace”.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha, Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah and Rina bat Hassida.
 Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, known by his acronym, Rashi, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in France in the eleventh century.
 The Torah attests that [Bemidbar 13:29] “Amalek lives in the Negev Desert”, hundreds of kilometers from Sinai.
 My wife, Dr. Tova Sacher, proposes a fascinating theory, suggesting that Amalek came to claim the water that G-d had miraculously given the Jewish People after Moshe hit a boulder with a stick. This explains why Amalek came specifically to Rephidim, the same geographic location that miracle occurred.
 Rambam Hilchot Melachim [5:5]
 See his commentary on Bereishit [34:1]. Dinah, Leah’s daughter, “goes out” to see what’s going on in the big city and she is kidnapped and raped.