Songs of Freedom

The transition from slavery to freedom is sudden. As the parashah begins, the emancipated slaves take up arms (13:18), and brace themselves for the inevitable showdown with their erstwhile masters. Their arms are primitive; from a logical perspective, they stand little chance against the mighty Egyptian war machine. Pharaoh and his army bear down on them in armored chariots, the ancient equivalent of tanks.

God, however, had already made an executive decision: The Israelites were not ready to face battle. He guided them toward the desert, away from the more direct route along the coastline, not out of fear of the Egyptians, but in order to avoid confrontations further along the route with other tribes and other armies (13:17).

There was still a special fate in store for the ruthless Egyptians, who had callously thrown Jewish babies into the water to their deaths. The Egyptians may have thought that they had paid the price for this murderous policy during the plague that had turned the waters of the Nile to blood. In retrospect, that was mere foreshadowing of the final chapter of the exodus story: The splitting of the sea, and the watery death of the Egyptians.

Rarely in life do we witness Divine Justice unfolding in real time, as the Israelites did with the splitting of the sea. Standing on terra firma, they had front row seats to the most awesome display of God's involvement in human history man had ever seen: The Egyptian army, chariots and all, were consumed by the water, and the reality of God's might and Egypt's complete eradication began to sink in to their consciousness. In response, the Israelites broke into songs of praise and thanks. The remainder of their march toward destiny would be unencumbered by fear of Pharaoh or his henchmen.

Soon enough, though, a new-old nemesis arrived on the scene, and the battle that might have been avoided was upon them. Amalek arrived. Years earlier, Yaakov and Esav had made a deal: Yaakov would take on responsibility for the covenant God had made with Avraham, which included slavery and suffering. Now that the hard part was finally over, the time to collect the reward had come: It was time to inherit the Land of Israel. Yaakov's children and grandchildren had paid the bill, had upheld their part of the deal through hundreds of years of suffering, but now Esav's family showed up, ready to “re-negotiate” the terms. Their arrival on the scene was anything but coincidental; it was a perfectly-timed attempt to re-take the birthright's benefits without having to assume any of the less-pleasant responsibilities.

The timing of Amalek's attack may have had additional, more spiritual roots as well.  The verses that immediately precede the battle indicate that the Israelites were suffering from a type of cognitive dissonance. They had witnessed the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the crippling of Egypt and their own miraculous prosperity, yet they cried bitterly at the prospect of running out of supplies. It seems that it never occurred to them that the same God who had turned the Nile into blood and split the sea could provide fresh water or food. Even after the first crisis is resolved by a miraculous sweetening of the bitter water, they seem strangely unable to draw the obvious conclusions:

Setting out from Elim, the whole Israelite community came to the wilderness of Tsin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moshe and Aharon. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Shmot 16:1-3)

As a food shortage looms, they speak of death. Interestingly, this is not the first time we see this reaction; years earlier, Esav spoke the same way:

Yaakov was cooking a stew, and Esav came in from the wilderness, tired. Esav said to Yaakov, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am tired”—which is why he was named Edom. Yaakov said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esav said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” (Bereishit 25:29-32)

Now, as the Israelites begin to run out of supplies, they quarrel with Moshe and test God. They had been so privileged, so protected; they had witnessed incredible miracles, but they had come to expect the miraculous. Neither the manna nor the sweetening of the bitter waters moved them to sing God's praises or even to express their gratitude as they had done at the sea. They had lost their voice; the song of praise they had sung at the sea was a distant, forgotten sound – only a few short days later. Their sense of gratitude and wonder had become dull, and they were spiritually "weary."

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he happened upon you on the march, when you were tired and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. (Devarim 25:17,18)

When Esav struck the deal with Yaakov, his emotional state was described precisely the same way:

Yaakov was cooking a stew, and Esav came in from the field, tired. Esav said to Yaakov, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am tired”... (Bereishit 25:29-30)

This spiritual exhaustion leads them to begin to question God’s involvement, His very existence – and then, Amalek appears:

The place was named Massah and Merivah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested God, saying, “Is God present among us or not?” And Amalek arrived… (Shmot 17:7-8)

The timing was perfect. The Jews had lost the voice of Yaakov, and apparently, the faith of Avraham as well; they had begun to sound like Esav. They failed to appreciate the miracles that sustained them, and began to see the world in much the same way as Amalek did –  attributing personal and national history to happenstance.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he happened upon you on the march, (Devarim 25:17-18)

The spiritual malaise into which they had descended opened the door for Amalek to stake a claim as the “rightful heir.” Having lost their voice, the Jews were forced to fight on Esav/Amalek's terms, using weapons and brute force to secure their future, rather than the instruments of faith that had been handed down from Yaakov, Yitzchak and Avraham.

Moshe was well aware of the spiritual health of his flock. Hoping to help them recalibrate and rediscover their spiritual stamina, he stands on the mountaintop and lifts his hands in prayer.

Moshe said to Yehoshua, “Pick some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the staff of God in my hand.” Yehoshua did as Moshe told him and fought with Amalek, while Moshe, Aharon, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Then, whenever Moshe held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moshe's hands grew heavy, so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aharon and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set. And Yehoshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword. (Shmot 17:9-13)

By behaving like Amalek, they had brought Amalek into their lives. They had failed to pray, to invest their energies in cultivating their relationship with God, or even to express gratitude, and had put the community in a precarious situation. What was Moshe's plan to shake them out of the religious rut into which they had fallen?

“And it came to pass, when Moshe held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; (Exodus 17:11). Did the hands of Moshe make war or break war? Rather, this tells you that as long as the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they prevailed; but when they did not, they were defeated. (Mishna, quoted in Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashana 29a)

Moshe's gesture from the mountaintop overlooking the battlefield transforms the hands of Esav back into the voice of Yaakov. He redirects the Israelites' focus heavenward, with a physical reminder of who they have become and who they must yet become -  and the people are energized. Once that metamorphosis takes place, the march to Sinai, and then on to the Land of Israel, is once again possible. It is not a journey that cannot be undertaken by the spiritually weary, nor can the trip reach its successful conclusion if we doubt God's active involvement in history. When we collect and re-focus our spiritual energies, when we raise our voice in praise, thanksgiving, and prayer, we affirm that we are the children of Yaakov, the rightful heirs to the covenant God made with Avraham. Only then are we ready for the rendezvous with God at Sinai.


For more essays and lectures on Parashat Beshalach: