Yom Rishon, 23 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 7 March 2021
Parashat Beshallach 2013

Parashat Beshallach
Rabbi Danny Rich

25 January 2013

As I am preparing this ‘Thought for the Week’ much of the world’s attention is focused on a desert in North Africa: not the Sinai Desert of Egypt but the Sahara Desert of Algeria. The reason is the seizure of the In Amenas gas plant by a North African Islamic jihadist group. Details are still emerging but it would appear that before or during efforts by the Algerian security forces to free civilian hostages some 60 persons lost their lives, including at least 30 workers whose citizenships include Britain, France, Japan and the United States and a similar number of jihadis. This was a tragic and frightening incident in a country which had until last week not been subject to such events. It will not only serve to remind us of the frailty of human life but will possibly make some of us more tolerant of security intrusions and measures which are now a part of modern life.

It was perhaps always so that insecurity and brutality were an aspect of ancient living. At the end of last week’s Torah portion the Exodus actually happens! As every Egyptian household mourns the death of its first born, the Hebrew presence in Egypt ends after 430 (Biblical) years. Laden with the gold, silver and fine cloth of the Egyptians, accompanied by flocks and herds and with matzot on their backs, 600, 000 men and their families (mainly Hebrews but others too) are rushed to the borders and into the desert at the outset of an incredible journey.

The opening of Parashat Beshallach (which runs from Exodus Chapter 13:17 and ends at 17:16) finds the Israelites at the beginning of the momentous journey which will take them from slavery to freedom. Carrying the bones of their ancestor and former Chief Minister of Egypt, Joseph, the people are led by a pillar of fire at night and one of cloud by day. Meanwhile the Egyptians have regretted their decision to release the Israelites and thus Pharaoh despatches his crack troops to effect a return. Having witnessed the plagues and with the Egyptian soldiers behind them and the Reed Sea before them, the Israelites experience yet another ‘miracle’ (or unnatural happening ) which gives rise to one of the oldest and best known pieces of Biblical literature, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15: 1-21). An extended poem, the Song graphically portrays the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers as the waters - through which the Israelites have trudged - encompass men, horse and armour.

Towards the end of Parashat Beshallach Israelites encounter another enemy: the Amalekites. The Amalekites were reputed to be a nomadic, predatory tribe whom, according to a later verse in Deuteronomy (25:18), perpetrated a cowardly and unprovoked attack on the feeblest and slowest of the fleeing Israelites. The Deuteronomist demands that, on the one hand, the Jews ‘Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey leaving Egypt...’ and, on the other hand, ‘You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven’.

Although the Amalekites are unknown outside of Biblical literature, Amalek becomes the symbolic adversary or exemplar of the worst enemy of the Jewish people. The best known example is that of ‘Haman the Agagite’ (Esther 3:1) who is regarded as a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite King who appears in the First Book of Samuel (15:8). This is the source for the custom at Purim of the raucous booing and shaking of greggors which is supposed to ‘blot out’ the name of Haman, the descendent of Amalek.

The celebratory noise of Purim parallels the joyous Song of the Sea, sung by the Israelites at their moment of salvation. Arising from this incident, Rabbinic tradition (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 10b) records:

"At that time the ministering angels wanted to sing a song of praise to the God but God restrained them, saying: “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you would sing before Me!”

Nevertheless in a week that families across the globe will be facing life without a father, a husband, a son it is to the instruction to ‘Remember (what) Amalek’ that I wish to return. We need to remember at three different levels. First, we have to acknowledge that there are men and women who are committed to their cause and are prepared to both take lives and give their own lives on its behalf. It is, therefore, necessary – and without celebrating their demise – to support the security services in their efforts to eliminate and minimise the successes of such persons. Second, whilst doing so and in the face of fear we need to remember both our own shortcomings and how easy it is to look for the enemy without rather than meet our personal exemplary standards. Third and perhaps most importantly, we need to retain a sense of faith that, whilst the journey may be neither short not without challenges, the Promised Land awaits. What is this Promised Land? A time when the slaveries of hunger, poverty, inequity and alienation will give way to the freedom whereby, (bearing in mind that this week is also Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees) in the words of the Hebrew Prophet, Micah (4:4), ‘every person shall sit under the vine or the fig tree and no person shall disturb another’.