Beshalach - Peace & Respect over Victory & Destruction
The Torah portion this week has so many teachings and powerful images that it is difficult to discuss just one. This is the reading that includes the Hebrews leaving Egypt; being trapped at the Sea of Reeds (“Red Sea” is a mistranslation); Nachshon walking into the waters with pure faith; the waters parting for the Hebrews and then closing on the Egyptians; the Song of the Sea; the gift of mana and the teaching of overstuffed quail; the changing of bitter waters to sweet; and the subsequent battle against Amalek. But in these times that are so challenging in the world around us, I’d like to briefly focus on just one teaching that stems from the parting of the Sea. (If you would like to read more on a different aspect of this portion, I invite you to go to the Jewish Journal at https://jewishjournal.com/judaism/332151/table-for-five-beshalach/ where myself and 4 other Jewish scholars do commentaries on a specific verse of this week.)
The Torah teaches that the Sea of Reeds parted for the Hebrews, and that after they crossed the Sea, it crashed down on the Egyptian soldiers (Ex. 14:16-29). These Egyptian worshippers of false gods who were the enemies of the Jews were destroyed. There is an important teaching in the aftermath of this horrific event. According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39B and Midrash Megillah 10B), immediately upon seeing this miracle, “the ministering angels in Heaven wanted to sing songs of praise to God. But God stopped them, crying out “the work of My hands (i.e. the Egyptians) is being destroyed, and you want to sing songs of praise? This indicates that God does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked.” This is a primary Jewish behavior that is all too often forgotten, especially when passions run high. Even when our enemy is being destroyed, we are not to rejoice at their destruction…for they too are creations of God. We may have to destroy them in a righteous war (which is defined clearly in Talmud, Sanhedrin 103B: “All conflicts must be made for the sake of God, not for the sake of human concerns. Our earthly benefits cannot be the reason for our wars; only for the sake of Heaven”), but we are never to gloat or rejoice in the destruction and defeat even of evildoers.
“Thou shall not hate thy brother in thy heart” is a commandment repeated throughout our texts (Lev. 19:17; Prov 24:17; Ez. 18:23; Bavli Sanhedrin 29B among others). There are times when we must go to war…to fully commit ourselves to a conflict. But while we strive for victory, we must remember to never rejoice at our enemies’ defeat. As Golda Meir said, “We don’t want wars, even when we win”. Or as the great football coach Paul Brown, the founder of the Cleveland Browns once said, “When you lose say nothing. When you win, say less”.
Judaism understands that there are some evils that need to be completely destroyed, such as Amalek (Amalek is referred to at the end of this week’s portion, and I recommend highly the book “Amalek: The Enemy Within” by Rabbi Elijah Schochet to truly understand the parameters of what Amalek really means.) But with that glaring exception, Judaism seeks to create a harmony that integrates differing points of view into a greater understanding of God and Life. As Rabbi Yochanan painfully expresses about his lost debate partner Resh Lakisha, “when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law” (Bava Metzia 84A). It is by truly understanding our adversary’s position that we can find a deeper harmony.
This important Jewish value seems to be lost in 21st Century America, where all too many conflicts are rooted in an attempt to completely destroy the adversary. In Judaism, we respect our opponents as they (like Resh Lakish above) present another point of view that we may disagree with but that we should consider. But the current world seems to have lost that value. In the past in America (and in Jewish tradition), people would view their opponents as “wrong”. Now it seems all too often that people view their opponents not as “wrong”, but as “evil”. And by defining an opponent as “evil”, it allows a person to give themselves permission to act in horrific ways in order to “destroy that evil”. Ultimately, as we can see in the current political arena on all sides, this leads to hate rather than dialogue; to outrageous behavior, hypocrisy, double standards, and a belief that an opponent must be destroyed or refute their beliefs rather than respect and peace; and to destruction rather than growth and harmony. The examples are too numerous to mention, and all any of us need to do is to take a look at the hate-filled words and behavior of politicians on both sides of the aisle.
And if you think that only the other side is expressing any hatred or double standards, I suggest you take a much deeper and more honest look at yourself.
We must go to war with an intent to defeat and destroy if it is truly “for the sake of God and Heaven”; but even in those rare cases, we must always remember to not rejoice at the destruction of an enemy. God forbid when we do, when we view our adversary as “evil” as opposed to “wrong”, and when we rejoice in the destruction of that adversary, then it is ourselves that have embraced the yetzer hara, the evil inclination…for all things are creations of God.
I often tell a story that is a direct result of this teaching we find about God stopping the angels from rejoicing; and I share it here in hopes that we can all be more honest about how we deal with our adversaries. A number of years ago, I was walking into a cigar lounge where there were a group of men cheering and yelling as if they were at a football game. As I walked in, they yelled that I had to watch what was on the tv. It was a broadcast of Arab terrorists being killed as they tried to sneak into Israel through a terror tunnel; and when these terrorists were bombed, the men screamed in joy.
I was both saddened and furious with the men there, and expressed those feelings to them. “Don’t you realize we just killed 50 men who been created by God? That we made 100 parents lose a son; and hundreds of children lose their fathers?!? There is nothing to rejoice about in this!” I taught them the teaching from this week’s Torah reading about the angels, and reminded them that if we, God forbid, ever start rejoicing at the death of our enemies; then we have become just like those enemies and have lost ourselves.
Our Rabbis have taught (Bavli Arachin 16B) that “we shall not hate our brothers in our hearts”. And the prophecy of Isaiah is as true today as it was when it was uttered almost 3000 years ago that the time shall come when we no longer rejoice at the defeat of our enemies; and when “nation shall not life up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more”
May we all remember this teaching of God’s chastisement of the angels at the Sea of Reeds; and may we all strive for a victory of true harmony rather than hollow victories of destruction. And may our enemies grow to embrace HaShem, and to respect and treasure us as much as we respect and treasure them so that this prophecy of Isaiah comes to fruition in our time.
Rabbi Michael Barclay January 29, 2021 16th of Shvat, 5781