Politics & the Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”
Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.
Bishalach 5771: Pick Your Battles
Two critical tactical encounters occur in this week’s Torah portion. Most famously, despite taunts (in the movie version) that the G-d of the Hebrews is “a poor general” or the Bible’s own admission that G-d set a trap for Pharaoh, one the King of Egypt took when he saw that “the desert had closed” on the Jews. “Only slightly less well known” is the Battle of Amalek, which while much more important philosophically & in Jewish national destiny, gets remarkably short shrift in the Bible itself.
Our concern though, is the difference in the encounters. At the Red Sea, G-d is the master tactician, planting the bait, plotting the ambush and deploying pillars of fire and columns of rushing water to preoccupy, deter, defend and ultimately, to destroy the Egyptian assault forces. G-d tells Moses when & what to do. The human tactical & operational input is limited to an outstretched arm & Nachshon’s jump.
Facing Amalek, G-d instructs Moses to do battle. After that, he’s basically on his own. Moses ascends the mountain with Aaron & Hur, alternatively serving as a rallying point and an inspiration to the Jewish men below or praying to G-d and successfully intervening in nature to press the Jews’ advantage (by slowing the sunset). Joshua, the battlefield commander, seems to have almost unfettered discretion, at least until they are successful. Then, according to some, G-d steps in to deal with the survivors and to legislate commemoration of Amalek’s attack for eternity.
Why the stark difference?
G-d knew that Israel could never face Egyptian cavalry. They weren’t even free men for a fortnight and here the might – and vengeful fury – of their all too recent oppressors was bearing down on them, and they between two rocks and not a hard place per se, but the raging sea.
An infectious panic spreads through the Israelite camp. Even once G-d answers Moses’ plea and tells him to order the Jews to march, only one brave soul takes that literal leap of faith, possibly history’s first.
The Talmud relates the Jews were so terrified of Egypt’s near mythic power that G-d – against perhaps His better judgment – was forced to show them the drowned corpses before they believed Egypt was finally vanquished.
But Amalek, for all the fearsome imagining that a bloodstained Jewish history has painted them, at the time was a desert band. They were not much different than the Jewish people.
They were, in other words, an equal match.
G-d knew He needed to step in and fight Egypt. But He equally knew He needed to step back and allow the Jews to fight Amalek.
Which battles we let ourselves fight & where we call for reinforcements, is a critical test of maturity. To always rely on someone else is cloying to us, annoying to them and disdainful to others. But to never ask for aid, even when our foe is “beyond any of” us is equally silly.
Equally, when we jump in to help our friends, family, coworkers or allies – and when we let them take a few hits, or fall and scrape themselves so they can grow – takes the wisdom of Solomon. We probably make mistakes, but in our political, communal and individual lives, it’s crucial we try to walk the line.
Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.