It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that G-d did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because G-d said, Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt. So, G-d led the people around [by] way of the desert [to] the Red Sea, and the children of Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt. [Exodus 13:17-18]
In this week’s Torah portion Beshalach, we are introduced to two nations. Maybe tribes would be better a word. The Philistines and the Amelakites would begin their age-old enmity toward Israel. But let’s not confuse the two; they are very different.
The Philistines first appear in Genesis. The sages say they came from the Mediterranean islands, where they lived like neanderthals. Violence was their trademark. The family was unknown. Man grabbed woman; couples swapped partners. In the 1960s, they might have called this free love.
The Philistines eventually left their islands and paddled their way to the Land of Canaan. They settled along the coast between what today is the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. After the liberation from Egypt, the easiest way for the Israelites would have been the Sinai coast — a 10-day journey from Goshen to what later became Jerusalem.
But that was perilous. The Philistines would not tolerate anybody moving through their territory. Thirty years earlier, the tribe of Ephraim left Egypt and headed back to their homes in Canaan. They came across the Philistines and were massacred. Indeed, the remains of 200,000 Ephraimites were still strewn along the coastal route, many of them holding spears and shields.
It was clear that the Philistines hadn’t changed over the decades. There was no way to explain to the Philistines that the liberated Israelites would pass quickly and not make trouble. It was certain that if approached the Philistines would attack again. Perhaps the Jews could overcome the Philistines. But among the Jewish people were hundreds of thousands of Egyptian migrants sent by Pharaoh to undermine G-d’s chosen. As we will see later in Exodus, the Egyptians would spread panic and sow division and confusion.
So, G-d didn’t take any chances. He would take Israel through the Sinai desert. The way would be longer — as it turned out 40 years — but the people would be fed, watered, clothed, protected and raised from slaves to free men and women. In the Land of Israel, the Philistines would constantly challenge Israel, but for now they would be no threat.
Toward the end of Beshalach, we meet a much more powerful foe — Amalek. Amalek was the grandson of Esau, Jacob’s brother, and personified the eternal struggle of good versus evil. Like the Philistines, Amalek could hardly be called a nation, rather a tribe of desert warriors, always on the lookout for conquest. But whereas the Philistines usually stayed close to home, Amalek would travel to the ends of the earth to destroy Jacob’s progeny.
And Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim. [Exodus 17-8]
Yonatan Ben-Uziel lived some 2,100 years ago during the Second Temple. He was the leading disciple of Hillel, the sage who restored Torah to the Jewish people during the end of the Hasmonean period. Yonatan composed an Aramaic commentary of the Torah that combines translation with divine secrets.
And Amalek came from the southern land and leaped that night 1,600 miles because of the fight between the children of Esau and Jacob.
Amalek’s first target, Yonatan says, was the Israelite tribe of Dan. Dan marked the weak link of Israel. Dan’s faith in the Almighty, who had taken them out of Egypt, had dissipated. Some of its members even worshipped idols and the tribe did not enjoy G-d’s protection. How Amalek could know that was simply a miracle. In any case, Amalek killed many of the men of Dan, long seen as excellent warriors, but now sheep to the wolves.
Unlike the Philistines, Amalek, who covered the distance from the Yemeni port of Aden to Israel’s Eilat — was not focused on defending its territory. Instead, the progeny of Esau were trained to exterminate the Jewish people at any cost. This time, Jews would have no chance to flee to Egypt. They knew they would be in the fight to the death.
Moses turned to his disciple Joshua and told him to form an army — fast. The new recruits would have to be pious, humble and fear G-d. No need to check for abs or flat feet. Moses would oversee the battle from a nearby hill. The staff he had used to bring the plagues in Egypt would be ready.
The fight with Amalek would require more than brawn. It would demand brains and a pure heart. Amalek was the master of deception. They could pretend to be brothers or friends and disarm their targets with warm words. They could speak different languages and even look like other nations. The Torah commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, calls this “witchcraft.”
As a result, the Israeli soldiers would have to know how to counteract Amalek’s witchcraft. They would be required to engage the enemy without being influenced by false words and images. The non-combatants would need to join Moses in prayer that the soldiers succeed. Meanwhile, Moses would use his staff to rain down plagues on the attackers.
Without G-d, the Jews didn’t stand a chance against Amalek. They had been slaves for decades, emaciated, tired and with little concern for one another. But when G-d is on your side, nothing else matters. For those with short memories, it explains how a ragtag bunch of farmers, Holocaust survivors, yeshiva students and shopkeepers defeated five Western-trained Arab armies in 1948 and then again in 1967. It would also explain how a nation without faith could lose a war to tribal proxies.
Moses Ben Nachman, or the Ramban, writes that Moses was worried that Amalek might defeat Israel. After all, Issac had blessed his son Esau, saying, “Upon the sword you shall live.” This would be the first war with Amalek, the Ramban writes, destined to return to destroy the Temple, hurl the Jews into exile and persecute them for thousands of years. Amalek would also lead the last war against Israel, just before the Messiah. A great deal was riding on how Moses handled this.
“And all that Moses and Joshua did with them in the beginning would be done by Elijah and the Messiah, son of Joseph with their [Amalek] descendants,” the Ramban says. “Therefore, Moses invested a great effort with this.”