This week’s Parsha is bracketed by two battles. The first, more dramatic one, is of course the battle between Bnei Yisrael and Paro and his warriors at the shore of Yam Suf. The second is the more mundane, but no less climactic fight against Amalek, who had traversed the desert in order to attack Am Yisrael as they left Mitzrayim and headed toward Eretz Yisrael. Our shiur will focus on the contrast between these two events.
The obvious difference that comes to mind is the question of Divine intervention, Hashgacha. The war against Egypt, from the moment that the trap is set until the final dawning comprehension of “anusa m’pnei Yisrael, ki Hashem Nilcham lahem b’Mitzrayim”, (flee from Yisrael because Hashem is fighting for them against Mitzrayim)(14:25), is supernatural in nature. Hashem tells Bnai Yisrael to leave Egypt via the desert along Yam Suf, deliberately creating the impression that they were lost in the desert. Hashem hardens Paro’s heart one last time, causing him to chase after Bnei Yisrael in a last ditch effort to recapture his escaped slaves. Hashem then keeps the two camps separated through a combination of fire and cloud throughout the night. And finally, Hashem splits Yam Suf, allowing Bnei Yisrael to emerge unscathed while drowning Paro and his army. This war can be aptly described by the passuk “Hashem yilachem lachem, v’atem techerishun” (Hashem will fight for you, and you will be silent) (14:14).
In contrast, the conflict with Amalek seems to be taking place on a very different level. The war is staged between armies and the battle is long and hard fought. To be sure, Hashem’s presence and influence is felt, but not with much of the same involvement that was manifest earlier. The Torah tells us that the actual battle was fought by Yehoshua, with Moshe Rabbenu observing the battlefield from afar. When Moshe’s hands were raised, Bnei Yisrael would prevail in their struggle, while they would lose ground when his arms were lowered.
This sequence of events, as described in our Parsha, is the source of one of the more famous queries found in Mishna (Rosh HaShana 3:8). Is it Moshe’s hand’s which lead to success or defeat in war? Rather, (the passukim) come to teach you that as long as Bnei Yisrael were gazing upward (toward Hashem) and dedicated themselves to Him, they were victorious; and if not, they would fall. Clearly then, our supposition cannot be that somehow this battle is being fought without Hashgacha. Rather, we need to understand what differences might be at play between the two situations, and what the import of those differences might be.
It should be noted at this point that there is an entire school of thought that views Moshe’s raising of his hands in a much more conventional manner. Rather than having any particular religious implications, Moshe was merely a symbol that the hard-pressed warriors could rally around. When they saw him atop the hill with his arms outstretched they were heartened and successfully pushed the fighting forward. The opposite occurred when his arms would drop. The Rashbam and the Chizkuni champion this approach. It would obviously be difficult to reconcile the Mishna with this understanding.
The Netziv suggests that Moshe Rabbenu actively sought to fight the war against Amalek in a more natural manner than the final battle against Paro. It was for this reason that he specifically chose Yehoshua to fight the war rather than lead Am Yisrael into battle himself. Moshe’s goal was for the battle to be won without overtly resorting to miracles or to Hashem. According to the Netziv he brings along the staff as an insurance policy. Were the battle to go badly, the staff would then be available to aid in the performance of open miracles. In the event, this did not prove necessary.
It is interesting to note that nowhere do we see Hashem commanding Moshe on how to conduct the battle. The choice of Yehoshua, as well as the decision to ascend the hilltop and observe the battle come from Moshe. Similarly, nowhere is he commanded to take his staff with him or raise his arms. This would seem to support the Netziv’s major contention, namely that Moshe himself decided how this war should be fought. Furthermore, it would suggest that what Moshe was doing on the hilltop was praying for the success of the war, as opposed to trying to directly influence the outcome of the battle, which the presence of the staff might otherwise suggest. (This appears to in fact be the partial position of the Ramban as well. The Ramban also suggests that Moshe was praying, though he is quite clear that Moshe was involved in the battle, going as far as to suggest that Moshe used the staff to strike at Amalek, a claim that is not obviously supported in the text).
The Netziv sees Moshe’s role as one of an educator. His job is to demonstrate to Am Yisrael that while the battle can be viewed as a historical event, taking place outside the context of Hashgacha, the opposite is in fact true. This is the meaning of the Mishna. When Bnei Yisrael saw Moshe’s upraised arms, they realized that the outcome of the battle would be determined not by the relative balance of forces on the field of battle, but rather through Hashem’s intervention. And that realization turned the tide in their favor. (If you have an opportunity, it is worthwhile to look up the Netziv inside, especially on passuk 12, and his discussion of the phrase “ad bo hashemesh”).
In his recently published book, “Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua, Sidra Shinea, Rav Elchanan Samet explores a similar approach to that of the Netziv. By comparing other passukim in the Torah describing Amalek, Rav Samet shows that Amalek dwelled in the area of the Negev, thereby forcing them to traverse a relatively large distance to confront Bnei Yisrael in Refidim. As such, one is forced to conclude that their war against Bnei Yisrael was in fact a preemptive attack, calculated to strike Am Yisrael while they were weak and disorganized, with the ultimate aim of trying to disrupt Hashem’s divine plan. This leads us to a second possibility when considering the difference between the war against Mitzrayim that our Parsha began with and the war against Amalek with which it ends. While the events of Yam Suf can be seen as the last chapter of Yitziat Mitzrayim, the battle against Amalek emerges as the opening volley in the wars for the conquest of Eretz Yisrael. As Rav Samet points out, this links very nicely with the original distinction that we suggested at the beginning of our discussion. It is true that the battle against Paro was distinguished by the overt role that Hashem played in the victory. But this role is consistent with the “nes nigla” aspect that characterizes all of yitziat Mitzrayim. The conquest of Eretz Yisrael, on the other hand, will be accomplished through the offices of “nes nistar”, hidden miracles. Thus, in this first battle of that campaign, Hashem’s role is muted.
As was posited by the Netziv, this is all about Hasgacha, and in Rav Samet’s view as well Moshe’s role is that of educator to this notion. Why is it that when Moshe raised his hand to split Yam Suf does the Mishna not rhetorically ask “Is it the hand of Moshe that splits the sea?” The answer, according to Rav Samet, is clear. In a case of nes nigla, no one would dream of such a thing. Only in the realm of nes nistar would such a question be conceivable. And this is Moshe’s message. It is easy to see the hand of Hashem when He reveals Himself with open miracles. In order to successfully conquer Eretz Yisrael, and in order to build a nation there, one must be able to see Hashem in nissim nistarim as well. Failure to do so invites Hashem to withdraw from us entirely, sentencing Am Yisrael to victory or defeat based on the natural balance of power that exists at any given time. This is of course a scenario that does not favor a small nation surrounded by enemies.
Maaseh Avot Siman L’Banim