Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Walk Article-Beshalach



Rabbi David Walk


            When we think back over our lives and choose our personal highlight clips, there are a few usual suspects in that list of top ten web gems.  These include weddings, births, graduations, etc.  Allow me a comment about graduations.  As a teacher and parent I go to a lot of graduations.  They are not usually my favorite events.  All too often they are too long, too boring, and too pompous.  I have successfully avoided my own since middle school (which we called junior high school back then), and that's a number of decades ago. I've had less luck in my professional and parental life.  However, as an Israeli citizen, I must add another occasion to the regular list, and that is the Tekes Hashba'ah or swearing in ceremony to the Israel Defense Forces.  For Israelis it is another rite of passage as significant as brit, bat mitzvah, or graduation.  Mine was moving, meaningful and mercifully short.  I will never forget the tears of pride I shed singing Hatikva while clutching my M-16 and Tanach.  I think back on that momentous occasion this week as we read about the first military action by the Jewish nation in this week's Torah reading.

            Towards the end of our parsha, we read:  Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim (Exodus 17:8).  Now, we've seen this scene before.  The Egyptians chased after us at the beginning of our Torah reading, and God instructs Moshe to tell the people, "Don't be afraid! Stand still, and see what the Lord will do to save you today. You will never see these Egyptians again (14:13).'  So, we can expect the same thing here a few chapters later, right?  Wrong!  In chapter seventeen the next verse reads:  Moses commanded Joshua, "Choose some men to go out and fight the army of Amalek for us. Tomorrow, I will stand at the top of the hill, holding the staff of God in my hand (verse 9)."  For the first time in our national history we will defend ourselves.  Why couldn't we do that against the Egyptians?  Maybe we weren't ready; maybe it was inappropriate to combat our former hosts.  In any case, it was now time to grow up and stand up for ourselves.  It was a heady moment.

            In the Al Hamissim prayer recited on Purim and Chanukah we thank God for the 'miracles, redemption, mighty deeds, triumphs and wars.'  Why do we thank God for the wars?  That's a blessing we would rather do without.  However we are proud and grateful to God for the opportunity to stand up for ourselves.  In the Mishneh, our Sages discussed the significance of that fight in the desert.  It states:  "And it was, that when Moshe would raise his hand then Israel would prevail but when he let his hand down Amalek would prevail" (Exodus 17:11). Now did the hands of Moshe make or break the battle? Rather, it comes to teach you that as long as Israel turned their thoughts to heaven above, and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they prevailed, but when they didn't they fell (Rosh Hashanah 3:8).  We prevailed when we understood that we were fighting for issues which God approved.  We saw ourselves as agents of our nation and of our God.  We fight the war because we must and we do our best to maintain our humanity even in these dire circumstances.  Our rules of engagement and our concern for civilians is admirable and sometimes even Herculean.  The Torah mandated laws of war (Deuteronomy 20:10-20, 21:10-14), which tried to sustain moral norms even under fire 3200 years before the Geneva Conventions.  For this reason I always listened carefully to our daily briefings which reviewed the rules for opening fire on attackers before every patrol.  We felt the moral imperatives of our army as well the self defense aspect.

            Rabbi Soloveitchik expressed our religious Zionist view of the new Jewish army in a famous address from 1956:  the knocking of the Beloved could be heard on the battlefield. The small Israeli Defense Forces defeated the mighty armies of the Arab countries. The miracle of "the many in the hands of the few" took place before our very eyes… The fifth knock of the Beloved is perhaps the most important of all. For the first time in the history of our exile, divine providence has surprised our enemies with the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not free for the taking, is not hefker (free or ownerless-the speech was called Kol Dodi Dofek, The Voice of My Beloved Knocks and was delivered at Yeshiva University on Yom Ha'atzmaut)!  The Rav equated the two wonders, first the magnitude of the victory and then the fact that we stood up to the bullies for the first time in two thousand years.  And this happened in the still lingering shadow of the Holocaust.

            As Rabbi Soloveitchik pointed out, the IDF has seen itself as the protector of Jews every where.   The most famous example of that is, of course, the Entebbe Raid on July 4, 1976.  When one the soldiers asked the commander Yoni Netanyahu, brother of the Prime Minister, why they had to go thousands of miles from home to save a French plane from European terrorists, he responded simply, "Because no one else will."

            Possessing an army is a double edged sword.  Armies, throughout history, have threatened the homeland almost as often as the cross border enemy.  So, too, the Jewish state must protect itself from over zealous militarism.  One of the antidotes to this danger is proudly read at induction ceremonies and comes from the book of Joshua:    Every place upon which the sole of your foot shall tread, that have I given to you. Only be strong and very courageous, that you may do according to all the law of Moshe My servant. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe and do according to what is written in it. For then you shall succeed (Joshua 1:3-8).  We have a gun in one hand and a Tanach in the other.