Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
"A time for war and a time for peace"
By Amitzur Barak* The parting words of Moses, man of G-d, to the tribes of Israel before ascending Mount Nebo, were: "O happy Israel! Who is like you, a people delivered by the Lord, your protecting Shield, your Sword triumphant! Your enemies shall come cringing before you, and you shall tread on their backs" (Deut. 33:29). They include shield and sword, enemies and treading, deliverance and victory. This is not a message of peace, as wished for in the words, "you shall…dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land" (Lev. 26:5-6), or of the words, "The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!" (Num. 6:26); rather, it is a message of war.
This is meant to teach us that a considerable part of the history that lies in store for the people of Israel includes the reality of war, an existence in which the people have enemies and those who hate us. Such has been the reality from the very birth of the nation: Abraham, our founding father, received this message in the very first words that he heard from the Lord, which included the promise, "I will bless those who bless you and curse himthat curses you" (Gen. 12:3). There will be those who curse us and hate us, who are our enemies. Indeed, Abraham was party to the first battle chronicled in the Torah and played an active part in it: the war of Chedorlaomer (the Four Kings). The last utterance Abraham heard from the Lord (told him at the conclusion of the trial of the binding of Isaac), conveys a similar message: "and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes" (Gen. 22:17); your descendants will have foes.
This theme also figures prominently in the weekly reading. Perhaps one might have expected that after the people had been released from their harsh enslavement, they would be able to move about freely and peacefully and enjoy a respite from violent confrontations with other nations, at least until they entered the promised land; but this expectation proved false. This week's reading, describing events that befell the people immediately after the exodus from Egypt, is characterized by the motif of war. The concept, "war," appears in both the first and last verse of the reading: "Now, when Pharaoh let the people go, G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines…lest the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt" (Ex. 13:17); "He said, 'It means, "Hand upon the throne of the Lord!" The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages" (Ex. 17:16).
Many others wars are mentioned in this week's reading. Even the second verse hints at imminent battles to be fought on the way to the promised land: "So G-d led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed [Heb. hamushim] out of the land of Egypt" (Ex. 13:18), on which Rashi comments: “Hamushim means none other than armed…and this verse was written for no other reason than to allay our wonderment regarding the war with Amalek and the wars with Sihon, Og, and Midian, as to whence they obtained arms."
Later the Egyptians' unsuccessful pursuit of the Israelites is described as a direct battle, albeit one-sided, of the Lord against Egypt: "The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace…'Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt" (Ex. 14:14, 25). This was a strange battle: Egypt was the enemy of the Lord, although the Egyptians perceived Israel to be their enemy. The Lord waged war on Egypt, preventing the Lord's enemy from coming in contact with Egypt's perceived enemy. This notion reverberates in the Song on the Sea: "The Lord, the Warrior—Lord is His name!...Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the foe!...The foe said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil…I will bare my sword'" (Ex. 16:3, 6, 9).
The fourth reference to battle in this parashah comes at the end of the reading, where the Israelites' first battle as a people is described—the battle forced upon them by Amalek (Ex. 17:8-16):
Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, "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 rod of G-d in my hand." Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek…Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed…And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword…And Moses built an altar…He said, "It means, 'Hand upon the throne of the Lord!' The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages."
The last verse labels Amalek as the definitive foe of the Lord and of the Lord's people, and thus they became the eternal object of war, to be remembered as and to symbolize the classic foe and hater of Israel.
Interestingly, all three "sister" readings,1 that is, parshiyot with similar names—in this instance, Va-Yishlah, Shelah-Lekha, and this week's parashah, Be-Shalah—begin with a war that was feared yet did not take place, but later on tell of a different war that did occur:
The first verse in this week's reading tells of a war that did not break out—a war against the Philistines, prevented by the Holy One, blessed be He, by His guiding the people around the long way. Of course later a war was fought against Amalek. Thus mention is made of two nations who, many generations later, came to be Israel's historical-mythological foes.2
At the beginning of Parashat Va-Yishlah, Jacob feared that Esau was coming with four hundred men in order to deal him a crushing blow, and he anticipated this by "praying, preparing a gift, and readying for war," according to Rashi's well-known commentary on the verse, "the other camp may yet escape" (Gen. 32:9; following Eccles. Rabbah 9.18). As we know, this war never materialized, but later on in the reading Simeon and Levi each took up their sword and mounted an exterminative attack on the city of Shechem, returning with much spoil, as was the way with victors in war.
At the beginning of Shelah-lekha, the Torah recounts how the war preceding the war of conquest of the Promised Land was forestalled. This war, essential both for transferring hegemony over the land and for wiping out the wicked inhabitants of the land, was forestalled in the wake of the scouts' scaremongering report that intimidated the people. Immediately afterwards, however, in a counter-response that came too late, the people, or at least part of them (those who decided to "go up"), reversed their position and set out to fight the inhabitants of the southern part of the land—the Amalekites and Canaanites; but they were defeated.
What is more, these three allied readings contain all the early battles of Jacob's sons as a family and of the Israelites as a people.
The last verse of this week's reading highlights another war-related motif present in all three readings. All three contain the Torah's first mention of Amalek as a person and Amalek as a nation:
The birth of Amalek son of Eliphaz, Esau's first-born, is noted in Parashat Va-Yishlah—his first appearance on the stage of history.
His second appearance is in this week's reading: his descendants, the people bearing his name, pounced on the Israelites, starting up with us and drawing us into an obligatory war: "The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages." It is important to understand that this encounter was traumatic for Israel not only because of the unexpected attack. The battle that took place the next day had its low points. Not only "whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed," but also "whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed," until in the end Israel finally won. Incidentally, perhaps the Torah wishes to teach us a general lesson: in any war, even the "good guys" are likely to suffer temporary or local setbacks.
The third appearance is in Parashat Shelah-lekha: in their tendentious report, the scouts exploited the trauma remaining from the war in this week's reading and began their list of frightening peoples with "Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region" (Num. 13:29). Amalek is mentioned another three times later on in the reading.
Another war-related common element: perhaps it is no coincidence that the grammatical root shared by the names of these three readings is sh-l-h, the word she'lah being synonymous with "sword." In addition, the word herev (=sword) appears in all three readings, twice in each reading: in Va-Yishlah: "Simeon and Levi…took each his sword, came upon the city…They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword" (Gen. 34:25-26); in this week's reading: "My desire shall have its fill of them. I will bare my sword" (Ex. 15:9), and "Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword" (Ex. 17:13); and in Parashat Shelah-lekha: "Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword?...For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will be there to face you, and you will fall by the sword" (Num. 14:3, 43).
Now we turn to an overall view of war in the Torah. The basic assumption is that the people of Israel and its leaders aspire to peace, and that on condition that Israel worships the Lord properly, the Lord's promises in the Torah will come to pass and we will be granted peace, as is written: "If you follow My laws…you shall dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone…and no sword shall cross your land" (Lev. 26:3-6). However, the Torah speaks extensively of another reality, even under these ideal circumstances, for in the very next verse, Scripture mentions war: "You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword" (Lev. 26:7-8). Also in the covenant on the plains of Moab, the good reward that is promised is victory, not peace: "Now, if you obey the Lord your G-d,…the Lord your G-d will set you high above all the nations of the earth…The Lord will put to rout before you the enemies who attack you; they will march out against you by a single road, but flee from you by seven roads" (Deut. 28:1, 7).
All of the above reinforces the feeling that despite our longing for peace, what lies in store for us is the reality of war—a wide gap between ideal and reality. To reduce the gap and minimize its undesirable implications we must draw closer to the Lord and follow in His ways. Even if war still lies in store for us, be it because of a decree by the Almighty, be it as retribution for our sins, we must aspire to peace, as the Sages said in Tractate Derekh Eretz (in the chapter entitled Peace, halakhah 19): "Rabbi Joshua of Sakhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: Great is peace, for all benedictions and prayers conclude with peace": the amidah prayer, grace after meals, the priestly blessing, the hashkivenu blessing that concludes the evening recitation of the Shema, Ein k-Eloheinu, and Tractate Berakhot and Tractate Oktzin, that conclude the six orders of the Mishnah—all end with peace. Moreover, it is said: "May the Lord grant strength to His people; may the Lord bestow on His people peace" (Ps. 29:11).
Translated by Rachel Rowen
* Amitsur Barak is a professor in the Faculty of Engineering of Ariel University Center of Samaria. Aside from his professional research (primarily in the area of desalination), he has written articles on political and religious themes for a variety of forums. The title of this piece is taken from Eccles. 3:8.
1 See my article, "Expiation for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel," Lectures on the Torah Reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University, Parashat Tzav, no. 960.
2 Perhaps to this very day. Our enemy close at hand took on the name Paleshet (Palestinians – ed.), and we call our enemies in general Amalek, as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik said: "Amalek still exists in the world," and explained with a quote from his father: "According to the Halakhah, any nation that plots to wipe out the Jewish community, becomes Amalek" (Ish ha-Emunah, Jerusalem 1971, p. 102).