Warning sign noticed on an apple orchard: G-d helps those who help themselves. But seriously, do we have to help G-d? Put simplest, the difficult question often asked is: When is absolute faith in G-d warranted and when do you call a doctor? Do you send the F-15’s or chant Tehillim? Does G-d only help those who help themselves?
Fight or Pray? Neither, it seems. For at the start of Parshas Beshalach the Jewish people are pinned against the Yam Suf by the attacking Egyptian army. Moshe quickly organizes a Tehillim gathering. Thousands gather at the Kosel and with heartfelt cries start to chant Shir HaMaalos. At an Israeli air force base somewhere in the Negev, war planes scramble ready to surprise Pharaoh (what a surprise that would have been!). But a voice comes from heaven. The voice says, “Stop davening!” “Shut down the engines!” You are to do absolutely nothing. Just keep walking and enjoy the show.
Before we conclude our discussion and become avowed pacifists we find a very different story at the end of the parsha. Again, the Jewish people are attacked; this time by Amalek. But here G-d’s reaction is very different. Here Moshe gathers the army and fights. In fact, by the Torah’s account, even the victory seems to have come from some magical effect of Moshe raising his hands. The Talmud tells us that of course Moshe’s raised hands didn’t win the war. Rather, they just helped focus the attention of the warriors on the heavens, and dedicate their hearts to G-d. But, why then does the Torah relate the story as if it was Moshe’s upraised hands that made all the difference?
Why the extremes? Don’t raise a finger or a voice against the Egyptians, but you’re basically on your own against Amalek.
Expounding on a thought of the Ishbitzer Rebbe provides a penetrating insight. Egypt and Amalek championed diametrically opposing approaches regarding man and the Divine. When confronted with the Divine command, Pharaoh replies with two words that accurately sum up his philosophy: “Mi Hashem,” put simply, “G-d who?” He continues, “Lo yadati es Hashem, I know of no G-d.” In Egypt, man was the only real god. Pharaoh was worshiped as the divine on earth. The Egyptians worshiped human
achievement. They called the Nile River the yior, an irrigation ditch. That which G-d had created was overshadowed by their efforts: it was their river. Of course, the Egyptians had to come to terms with the fact that man is mortal; seriously challenging the divinity of man. They therefore established an elaborate culture of the afterlife. They seriously believed they could take it all with them. Even the pyramids were a feeble attempt at creating an everlasting monument to man’s ability to make his mark on this earth.
So, when battle is waged with Egypt, Hashem says, “This one’s on me.” Egypt must be shown that man is nothing in the face of the divine. As Rashi comments (Shemos 14:15): “alai hadavar talui, v’lo alecha, this is dependant on Me, not on you.” In order to clarify who is in charge, Bnei Yisrael are commanded not to do anything whatsoever. No prayers, no wars.
Amalek, the descendant of Eisav, looks at things differently. When Eisav is confronted with his spiritual destiny, he reacts by saying Hinei anochi holeich lamus, v’lemah zeh li bechorah. Amalek believed in the utter futility of human endeavor. To it, it all makes no difference. Instead of claiming “Mi Hashem, who is God,” it claims Lameh zeh li, why bother with G-d? Amalek leaves no monuments, because to it man is simply one more grain of sand to be swept away by the winds of time.
About the Author: Rabbi Karmi Gross is a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, where he serves as the Rav of the Bialle Shteibel. He is also the founder and Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Derech Chaim. Rabbi Gross has been active in the field of Jewish education for the past thirty years and is currently the curriculum director for Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Toronto and Yeshivah College in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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