By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Beshalach is an ode to a nation being formed through trial and tribulation. The Jews faithfully followed Hashem’s direction out of Mitzrayim and into the desert, “lechteich acharai bamidbar,” marching from the depths of slavery to the heights of Kabbolas HaTorah.
Yet, there are some issues that require explanation. Following the makkos and the exit of the Jews from Mitzrayim, Paroh and his nation chased after their former slaves, catching up with them on the banks of the Red Sea.
Had Paroh and his people not learned their lesson? Had they not experienced enough bitterness and pain at the hands of the G-d of the Jewish people? Had they not recognized that they are no match for the G-d of the Jews, having lost every showdown with His nation? Why did they chase after them? What made them think that they would be able to subjugate them once again?
As for Paroh, Hashem had told Moshe (Shemos 14:4) that he would harden his heart and cause him to chase after the Jews in order to bring about a kiddush Hashem. But what about the people? Why were they engaging in yet another doomed attempt to vanquish the Jews? Anyone with minimal intelligence could have concluded that the Jews would triumph once again, as they had repeatedly in the past. Why engage in a suicidal mission?
While perhaps we can understand that the Mitzriyim were somehow charmed by Paroh and under his influence, what about the Jews? As Paroh approached them, they let out a hue and a cry. They assaulted Moshe (Shemos 14:11-12), saying, “Are there not enough graves in Mitzrayim that you brought us here to die in the desert? We already told you in Mitzrayim that we would prefer working for Mitzrayim rather than dying in the desert.”
Is it not mind boggling? These were the very same people who just a few days prior had been delivered from the clutches of Mitzrayim. They shechted and partook in the Korban Pesach, they heard Hashem’s promises about their future in the Promised Land, and they answered their children’s questions, as prescribed by the posuk. These were the same people being led by the protective Anan Hashem during the day and the Amud Aish at night. Why were they fearful? How could they have sunk so quickly to express no confidence in Hashem’s ability to save them from Paroh?
We commonly understand avodah zorah as the inane worship of an inanimate statue or human being. Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l (Ikvisa D’Meshicha) explains that avodah zorah is actually embracing any concept or attitude that causes one to believe in a power or force other than Hashem. Any belief that distracts a person from Hashem’s mastery over creation is avodah zorah.
The Mitzriyim who followed Paroh to encircle the Jews and capture them and the Jews who complained that they were about to die in the desert had something in common, as Chazal teach us. “Hallalu ovdei avodah zorah, vehallalu ovdei avodah zorah.” Both were worshippers of avodah zorah.
While it seems silly to fashion a god out of marble and worship it as if it has any powers, worshiping a false deity has many advantages, for it frees people from obligations. To have recognized the power of Hashem would have obligated the Mitzriyim to follow His principles. Acknowledging that Hashem is indeed the Creator of the world and Omnipresent means that His Torah is the blueprint for the world and for man.
The Egyptian legends and myths were much easier to accept than a truth that came with a code of proper conduct.
The Jews were at the 49th level of tumah and under the influences of the Mitzriyim. As obvious as it may be to us in hindsight, as objective observers, it was very difficult for the Jews to shake loose the preposterous suppositions that they had become accustomed to. Prior to Krias Yam Suf, they still found it difficult to accept upon themselves the Divine code of conduct and fashioned imprudent postulations to explain their predicaments.
At the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people rose to a very high level, recognizing Hashem’s strength and singing shirah. Chazal say at that time, a “maidservant witnessed greater visions at the sea than the prophet Yechezkel ben Buzi ever saw.” It would appear that when they attained those heights, they overcame their weaknesses and would remain in awe of Hashem’s mastery of the world.
Yet, the same people lifted from the depths of impurity, who witnessed the open revelation of Hashem’s Presence and cried out, “Zeh Keili ve’anveihu,” seemed to fall ever so quickly.
Their plunge was as dramatic as their rise. Three days after the climax, they were again complaining (Shemos 15:22), crying out, “Mah nishteh? What will we drink?” as if Hashem had brought them there for them to die of thirst (Shemos 15:24).
Hashem’s answer is revealing. The posuk (ibid. 26) states that they were told, “If you listen to Hashem and do what is proper in His eyes, and follow His mitzvos and chukim, I will not place upon you the illnesses I placed upon Mitzrayim, for I am Hashem, your healer.”
Their complaint about the lack of water emanated from a lack of belief. Hashem’s response was to remind them of their obligations as people of belief. If they would totally forsake their mythical beliefs, Hashem would be their protector. Although they knew the truth of Hashem, they had begun to slip back into the clutches of avodah zorah because of its convenience.
Avodah zorah is akin to drug addiction. Although it is obvious that the drugs do not help the person’s situation and merely create fictitious realities that cause the addict to be drawn into a downward spiral, the freedom from obligation and reality is too enticing a panacea to overcome.
With that incident behind them, they began moving, only to once again fall from their lofty plateau and complain that Moshe and Aharon were leading them to a painful death of starvation. They claimed that their life in Mitzrayim was idyllic, with prime beef and luscious bread.
What happened? Where had the tangible emunah disappeared to?
Once again, they were experiencing the ebb and flow of addicts. It was proving difficult for them to accept upon themselves the discipline that comes from recognizing Hashem. Their emunah and bitachon suffered, because they lacked the courage and fortitude to completely accept the restraint and regulation that accompany the acceptance of the fact that Hashem is the Creator.
The story is often retold of the time a former student of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik in Yeshivas Volozhin who had veered from the path of Torah visited his rebbi. The maskil told Rav Chaim that he left the path of Torah because of certain questions he had. He said that if Rav Chaim could provide satisfactory answers to his questions, he would resume living the way he did while in Volozhin.
Rav Chaim told him that he would answer his questions, with a caveat. He would engage him in conversation regarding the questions he had before he became unobservant. As for the questions that began bothering him after he had left Volozhin, Rav Chaim said, those aren’t questions. “They are answers,” he said. “Those questions are rationalizations to validate the choices you made. They are excuses and a convenient defense for you as you submit to your urges and ta’avos.”
The nisyonos faced by the Dor Dei’ah are just as daunting to our generation today. We don’t worship little idols and other vacuous trivialities, but we are tempted by other avodah zorahs. People worship money and fame, power and influence. They delude themselves with fictitious beliefs so that they can engage in physical pleasures. Anything that negates the fact that Hashem controls the world is a form of idol-worship and avodah zorah. Every Jew recoils in horror from the thought of avodah zorah, yet we tread dangerously close when we attribute actions to forces other than Hashem.
Society has adopted the theory put forward by Charles Darwin that the world created itself and animals evolved from shapeless matter into living, breathing beings. Everything you see in our beautiful world, they say, arrived there by itself. The millions of atoms required to form one being somehow managed to arrange themselves in that way to become trees, flowers, birds and all of humanity. The very idea is preposterous.
To think that a human, or any part of him, could have come into existence by itself defies logic. Flowers created their multiple shapes, sizes and colors all by themselves? How can it be? Who can really believe that? The truth is that no one can, but people do anyway, for doing so frees them from being subservient to a divine code of conduct.
Dr. Henry Marsh, a British neurosurgeon, is one of the pioneers of a procedure called “awake craniotomy,” allowing the removal of certain brain tumors while a patient is awake.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian author, was allowed to witness one such operation. His account was translated for The New York Times.
He writes that one of the operating doctors “looked up from a microscope that was suspended over the brain and turned to me… ‘Do you want to have a look?’ he asked.
“The doctor stepped aside, and I bent down over the microscope.
“A landscape opened up before me. I felt as if I were standing on top of a mountain, gazing out over a plain covered by long, meandering rivers. On the horizon, more mountains rose up. Between them, there were valleys, and one of the valleys was covered by an enormous white glacier. Everything is gleaming and glittered. It was as if I had been transported to another world, another part of the universe. One river was purple, the others were dark red, and the landscape they coursed through was full of strange, unfamiliar colors. But it was the glacier that held my gaze the longest. It lay like a plateau above the valley, sharply white, like mountain snow on a sunny day. I had never seen anything quite as beautiful, and when I straightened up and moved aside to make room for the doctor, for a moment my eyes were glazed with tears.”
Yet, scientists, intellectuals, common people and lawmakers have the audacity to say that the brain created itself. There is nothing as beautiful as this organ, rarely seen by human eyes. The brain is merely one organ of millions and its beauty and intricacy is mind-boggling. Imagine if you factor in the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon, the beauty and grandeur of every component of the world, the intricacy of a leaf and a blade of grass and insects and the cosmos.
How can anyone who knows anything about anything in this world mock creationists?
It is hedonistic urges that drive people to Darwinism.
The Chazon Ish taught that a necessary component of greatness is to always be objective. It might seem obvious, but to be free of negius means to be firmly committed to the ramifications of emunah. Great people are entrenched in their faith and aren’t dissuaded by temptations of money or power, since they know that everything comes from Hashem. If they are deserving of something, they do not have to obtain it through subterfuge.
When they investigate an issue, when they are consulted for advice and direction, their judgment can be relied upon.
A group of assimilated students once approached the Alter of Novardok, wishing to discuss finer points of religious ideology. He agreed to have the conversation, but said he would talk to them only after they had spent a month studying in his yeshiva.
He explained his decision with the following parable: A simple person was walking along the street on a Shabbos afternoon when he saw a golden coin. He needed the money badly and began to find ways, according to halachah, to permit moving the coin on Shabbos. His reasoning was quite creative, and he was satisfied with his conclusions and kicked the coin step by step as he walked down the street towards his home.
The town banker was taking his Shabbos afternoon stroll and noticed the gentleman kicking a coin as he walked. He bent down to examine the coin. When he straightened up, there was a frown on his face. “I hate to break it to you, mister,” he said. “That coin is copper, not gold. It’s worth pachos mishoveh pruta.”
Suddenly, all the heteirim vanished and the man sulked away, shuffling his tired feet home. His excitement upon winning the lottery was dashed and he was done with his creative halachic reasoning.
The Alter of Novardok turned to the group. “That’s the truth for everything that captures us. If it holds value, then our reasoning is impacted and we are unable to think clearly. Only when we get rid of our misconceptions can we appreciate our errors and honestly examine the issues.
“As much as I would like to help you in your thinking, it would be a waste of time for me to speak with you while you are still held captive by the allure of your culture and philosophy. After you have spent some time in yeshiva and your minds are cleared, I will be happy to talk.”
It is only at the very end of the parsha that a change seems to overcome Am Yisroel, and for many parshiyos they do not rebel against Hashem.
The pesukim relate that as Amaleik descended upon the Jewish people, something changed. Moshe, Aharon, Yehoshua and Chur led the charge against Amaleik. When Moshe raised his hands, the Jews advanced in their battle. The Mishnah teaches that when the Jews put their faith in the One Above and davened for victory, they won. That emunah and bitachon remained with them until Seder Bamidbar.
The parsha ends as Hashem instructs to write down the story of Amaleik’s attack and to know that Hashem will erase the memory of Amaleik. However, that realization will wait until Moshiach’s arrival, for until then, we will face attacks from Amaleik in every generation.
Perhaps Amaleik sensed a lack of emunah and pounced. They saw a void and sought to expose it and take advantage of it. The nation of asher korcha baderech worked assiduously to tamp down the fires of faith.
When the members of Klal Yisroel asserted themselves, they emerged stronger than ever. They believed with a new certainty and focus not just that Hashem runs the world, but also that everything else is just a distraction from that reality.
The encounter with Amaleik served to tighten their embrace with Hashem and bring them closer to Har Sinai. Similarly, in every generation, when Amaleik attacks us, he causes us to reaffirm our beliefs and turn to Hashem. This is why Hashem promises that our arch-enemy will be ever-present until the redemption. We need him in order to remain loyal to Hashem.
As we adapt to our host country in the exile, people grow comfortable with their neighbors and surroundings and begin assimilating and adopting the prevalent avodah zorahs. When that happens, the nations rise up against us, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, and we are reminded who we are and where we come from.
Check our history and you will see that it is true. The Jews are forced from their homes to a new exile. There is much pain and anguish. Jews are mercilessly killed and robbed of their possessions. Beaten and barely holding on, they establish roots in a new country. Slowly, they spread out of their ghettos and gradually become accepted and comfortable in the new host country. Good times are had by all, but then, just as it seems as if Moshiach has come and brought us home, the cycle begins again. The goyim get fed up with us, the noose tightens, and, before we know it, Amaleik has us on the run again.
This time it is different, for we have been told that America will be the final stop in this exile. When we leave here, it will be to go to Eretz Yisroel. We must ensure that our faith remains firm, that our objectivity holds us in place, and that we don’t veer off the path.
Amaleik is ever-present, bombarding us daily with all types of challenges, moral, legal and ethical. He seeks to temp us with various avodah zorahs. In the spirit of “asher korcha,” he seeks to cool us from extreme devotion and dikduk b’mitzvos with different guises and nomenclatures. Sometimes, they sound intelligent and sophisticated, while at other times, they are directed at man’s baser temptations.
We must always keep our guard up. Whenever something comes along and causes a chillul Hashem, we should know to stay very far away. When people begin doubting rabbis, or halachah, or mesorah; when people throw up roadblocks to shemiras hamitzvos; when they mock our values and talmidei chachomim, seeking to adapt Torah to other cultures and religions; when they say that we must be more open-minded or accepting, we should recognize the voice of Amaleik.
To survive, we must remain faithful to our mesorah, unyielding in our devotion to Torah, untempted by anything that introduces foreign beliefs, and support the hands of the Moshe Rabbeinus of our generation with emunah, bitachon, tefillah and humility. By doing so, we will merit the final geulah, bemeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.