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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Beshalach: A Kinder, Gentler Amalek?

Parshat Beshalach concludes with Amalek's infamous attack on the Jewish people. While most today associate the story with the Biblical injunction to wipe out Amalek, neither that command nor the details of Amalek's cruelty actually appear in our Parsha. Instead, both occur in a supplemental account located in Parshat Ki-Teitzei. In fact, numerous distinctions exist between the two narratives:

1. Beshalach provides military detail of the victory over Amalek. It explains that Yehoshua fought in the plain while Moshe sat on a mountain summit — the victory was contingent upon Moshe holding his hands upwards. These details do not appear in Ki-Teitzei.

2. In Beshalach, God declares that He will wipe out Amalek. The raid is criticized as "a hand upon the throne of the Lord." (17:16) This stands in contrast to Ki-Teitzei, which commands the Israelites themselves to remember the attack and insists that, once they inherit the land of Israel, they must wipe out Amalek.
3. Beshalach artlessly presents the Amalek onslaught as, "Then Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim."(17:1) A more sinister picture is painted in Ki-Teitzei: "How [Amalek] met you by the way, and attacked the back of the camp, all that were enfeebled in your rear flank, when you were faint and weary; and [Amalek] did not fear G-d" (25:18).

The two sources complement each other, each providing separate but essential details in order to emphasize a particular perspective on the overall event. When faced with two takes on the same story, it is the reader's job to pinpoint each particular point of view and explain why it is infused within each particular narrative.
From the outset, we can identify two different transgressions committed by Amalek: on the one hand, they attacked God's chosen nation, the people whom God had just miraculously redeemed from Egyptian slavery; on the other hand, Amalek's cowardly assault, directed at the camp's infirm rear, was a moral and military crime against the nation itself.
Notice that Beshalach harps on the details of the battle while Ki-Teitzei focuses on the despicable tactics employed. From the lens of Beshalach, Amalek sinned by merely challenging God's chosen people. In contrast, Ki-Teitzi's description points to the war crime committed against the Jewish nation.
The conclusions of each narrative fit the divergent perspectives each provides. Beshalach ends with God vowing to wipe out Amalek, explaining that their attack was a sin upon His throne. Ki-Teitzi has G-d commanding the Jewish nation themselves to seek and destroy an Amalek that wronged them.
This leads us to ask why each perspective of sin appears where it does and in doing so, to analyze each narrative within its respective context. For example, Beshalach's version must be analyzed against the backdrop of a greater Exodus narrative. In Shirat Hayam, the nation triumphantly sings:
Then were the chiefs of Edom afraid; the mighty men of Moab seized with trembling; all the inhabitants of Canaan are melted away. Terror and dread fell upon them; by the greatness of God’s arm they are as still as a stone…(15:15-16)
As the verses attest, the beleaguered nation's redemption from Egypt had international ramifications. God destroyed the dominant super-power of the era and the miracles that ensued were prominent enough to instill fear in the distant lands of Moav. In the eyes of the region, the Israelite God reigned supreme. And yet, the same dread that befell the Canaanites (15:15) did not deter the Amalekites. Being that the preceding narratives emphasized God's dominance and omnipotence, it is only appropriate that the subsequent Beshalach section paints Amalek's deplorable actions as diametrically opposed to that depiction. Likewise, while Sefer Devarim preps the Jewish people for entering their homeland – how to build a model Jewish country with a model national mission – it is only appropriate for the Torah to emphasize that the budding Jewish nation has a responsibility to erase from its world the evil and immoral forever symbolized by Amalek.

QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table
-- Some of the most familiar aspects of the Amalek story are absent from its account in Parshat Beshalach.
-- In fact, there are three major differences: only Beshalach contains details of the battle, only Ki-Titzei describes Amalek's cruelty, and the famous command to erase Amalek only appears in the latter, while in Beshalach, God takes up that responsibility.
-- Two accounts offer two perspectives. A major theme in Shemot is God's control of the world and public selection of His people. Amalek's attack is portrayed through that lens, where it represents a "hand on the throne" of God's omnipotence. A major theme in Devarim is preparing Bnei Yisrael for the transition to political nationhood and, as such, Ki Teitzei emphasizes the national responsibilities incumbent upon Amalek's victims.

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