Beshallach: Battle and Fasting

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

“Yehoshua did as Moshe told him and fought with Amalek, while Moshe, Aharon, and Hur went up to the top of the hill . . . . ”
(Shmot/Exodus 17:10)

Good afternoon, one and all. It’s a long and rich parsha this week, beginning with the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds, continuing with Moshe and Miriam leading the people in praise and dance on the other side, taking a detour into grumbling and conflict, and finishing on a somber note, with the nation of Amalek attacking the Israelites as they journey towards Sinai.

Yehoshua, Moshe’s second in command, leads the people in battle with Amalek, but Moshe himself, along with two others, ascends a hill above the battlefield to watch and pray. Our friend Rashi draws a halachic point from the verse quoted above; he says that the example of Moshe, Aharon and Hur going to the hill above the battlefield teaches that on a fast day, we have three people who lead the congregation in prayer, as the people were fasting that day.

Now, fasting during a battle doesn’t make much sense from the standpoint of physical strength and endurance, so we are meant to understand that there is an introspective and spiritual aspect to the battle with Amalek which is also important. The ancient rabbis see all the conflict and accusation in chapters 16 and 17 as setting the stage for Amalek to attack, either as a punishment or simply by dividing and weakening the people.

This does not, in any way, exonerate Amalek for their evil deed. Rather, the point of this midrash is that two things can be true at once:

1) Evil people do bad things and must be held responsible; Amalek must be fought.

2) Conflict and catastrophe are opportunities for reflection and introspection in order to atone for any part in making it possible for evil people to do terrible things. Fasting is one traditonal Jewish way of engaging in this reflection and atonement; hence Rashi making a connection between fasting and fighting with Amalek.

The past week has been a sad and difficult week in the United States; a sitting Congresswoman is fighting for her life after being shot, along with many others, in a senseless act of shocking brutality, which took the lives of young and old alike. President Obama, in his speech a few days later, used Biblical imagery to make essentially the same point that Rashi does: that justice and introspection are complementary responses to violence of word and deed. We must hold people accountable for their actions, and we must look within ourselves to ask how we, as individuals and as a community, may have contributed to allowing bad things to happen.

A third way of articulating this idea is something Heschel said in his book The Prophets: few are guilty, but all are responsible. That sense of responsibility, for self and others, is truly the foundation of a morally serious life.

Shabbat Shalom,


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