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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beshalach: My enemy's pain is not my gain
December 23, 2007
There are many groups both in Israel and abroad who promote peace at any price. The angel that was leading the Jewish people through the wilderness blocked the Egyptians from attacking. As the Egyptians drown, the angels are rebuked for singing. On the seventh and eighth days of Pesach, we omit part of Hallel to commemorate that the Egyptians drowned at the sea. There were no atrocities that the Egyptians had not been willing to inflict on the Jewish people. All humans are created in the image of G'd. Abraham was the great lover of all people. The Jewish soldier kills if necessary but is distressed by killing. Jews do not rejoice when their enemy falls. To this very day, we omit parts of the Hallel on Pesach because the Egyptians fell at the sea.
Peace at any price
As the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators meet to try and work out a peace plan, the Jewish people are under tremendous pressure from the nations of the world. Even within the Jewish nation itself we find many groups both in Israel and abroad who promote peace at any price. These groups are guided by humanitarian principles and many Israelis are simply tired of facing the possibility of more wars. How well-meaning these groups may be, they lack the understanding of the enemy that the Jewish people is up against. Additionally, since these groups are run by secular leaders, they do not avail themselves of what the Torah teaches about our attitude and conduct towards our enemies.
Pillar of cloud
In this week's Torah portion, we read how G'd leads the Jewish people through the wilderness after they have been sent out of Egypt. When Pharaoh is informed that the Jews have escaped, he gathers his army and pursues them. The Egyptian chariots chase after the Jewish people and reach them as the camp by the sea. The angel that has been leading the Jewish people through the wilderness, in the form of the pillar of cloud, goes between the two camps and blocks the Egyptians from attacking. The Torah (Shemos 14:20) describes the scene and writes, "And [The angel of G'd] came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel and there were cloud and darkness [for the Egyptians - Rashi] while it illuminated the night [for the Jews - Rashi] and one did not draw near the other all the night."
Angels stop singing
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) teaches that when it says that "one did not draw near the other all the night" it refers, on a deeper level, to the angels. They wanted to sing G'd's praises when the Egyptians were drowned as the sea walls collapsed back on them. G'd rebuked the angels and said, "My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea, and you utter song before Me?!" On hearing this rebuke, the angels stopped singing and did not "draw near" each other all night.
Every Festival, the Jewish people sing praises to G'd when we say Hallel. However, on the last six days of Pesach, two paragraphs are omitted. This is to express that our happiness is not complete on these days. On the seventh and eighth days of Pesach, we omit this part of Hallel to commemorate that the Egyptians drowned at the sea and G'd was saddened by their death. Since the seventh and eighth days are more festive than the intermediate days, we omit this part on those days as well.
This seems strange. The Egyptians were chasing after the Jewish people like wild animals. Earlier, they had mercilessly drowned the Jewish baby boys in the Nile River. They had used the bodies of Jewish children to fill the spaces in the walls of their pyramids. There were no atrocities that the Egyptians had not been willing to inflict on the Jewish people. So why was G'd saddened when the Egyptians drowned in the sea? Did they not deserve this punishment?
Image of G'd
We may find the answer to G'd's sadness in the words of Rabbi Akiva (Pirkei Avos 3:14) "Precious is the human being, who was created in the image [of G'd], as it is says, 'for in the image of G'd He made man' (Bereishis 9:6)". Not only the Jewish people are created in the image of G'd, but all humans. G'd feels for every individual, Jewish or not. In this spirit the sages taught "Be the first to greet everyone" (Pirkei Avos 4:15). The Talmud (Berachot 17a) relates that the great Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai would always be the first to greet everyone, even when he met a gentile in the street. Once we realize that every person we meet, both Jew and gentile, is someone created in the image of G'd, then we will no doubt treat them with the proper respect.
Abraham, the great lover of people
We learn an amazing lesson from our great ancestor Abraham that shows to what extent we should strive to look upon and treat others with a positive attitude. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah represented some of the worst excesses of human selfishness. It was a crime in Sodom and Gomorrah to give charity. G'd was so outraged by the wickedness of these people that He decided to destroy them with a shower of fire and brimstone. On the other hand, our Patriarch Abraham was the epitome of lovingkindness. While suffering from excruciating pain, he interrupted a Divine revelation to run out, into the scorching desert, to greet three strangers and attend to their needs. We would imagine that Abraham would be only too happy upon hearing that G'd planned to destroy these towns and kill all the inhabitants. However, when G'd told Abraham that He was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded with G'd to find a way to prevent this destruction. Abraham's prayer was a pure act of lovingkindness. He cared for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah with no expectation of receiving anything from them in return. It did not matter that Sodom and Gomorrah did just the opposite of everything that Abraham taught and believed in. In his greatness Abraham was able to look past the exterior of his opponents and saw the image of G'd in everyone. As Abraham's descendants we carry his greatness in our genes and have within us the potential to emulate his high level of lovingkindness.
Jacob, the ideal Jewish soldier
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) teaches us that if someone comes to kill a person, he should kill the murderer first. If the option is to kill or be killed, there is no choice. However, one still has a choice of what kind of attitude and feeling one maintains at the time when one has to take the life of one's attacker. We learn the proper Jewish attitude in such a situation from our Patriarch, Jacob. The Torah tells us that when Jacob was about to return to the land of Israel, Esau headed towards him and his family with an army of four hundred men. At that point, says the Torah (Bereishis 32:8), "Jacob became very frightened, and it distressed him." We need to understand why the Torah tells us that Jacob was both frightened and distressed. Rashi quotes from the Midrash that, first of all, Jacob was frightened as it seemed that Esau was coming to kill him and his family. But at that same time, Jacob was distressed that he might have to kill Esau or some of his men in order to defend himself. Jacob here taught us that the Jewish warrior should be distressed by the necessity of killing his enemy. As his descendants, we also carry his attitude in our genes and have the capacity to follow in his footsteps with a high esteem for every human life.
The fallen enemy
King Solomon summarizes the proper Jewish attitude towards our enemies: "Don't rejoice when your enemy falls. Don't let your heart be glad when he is overthrown" (Mishlei 24:17). Does this mean that we, as Jews, are obligated be kind to our enemies and give them whatever they ask for, even when they plan to kill us? Definitely not! The Torah instructs us to defend ourselves through whatever actions may be necessary, including to be the first one to attack. In the case of our arch enemy Amalek, the Torah even commands that we annihilate any physical presence of them and erase their memory from the face of the earth (see Devarim 25:19). But the Jewish soldier does not rejoice when his enemy falls. Rather, the Jewish soldier feels pain that it is necessary to kill someone created in G'd's image.
This is what the Torah teaches us. Do whatever you have to, to defend and protect yourself. But do it with a heavy heart, as it may cost human lives, and every human being is created in G'd's image. Abraham pleaded with G'd not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, even though they represented the exact opposite of everything that Abraham lived for. Jacob was distressed at the thought of killing his brother and his men, although they came to kill him. To this very day, we omit parts of the Hallel on Pesach because the Egyptians fell at the sea. In this way, we join G'd in His pain that it is necessary to destroy one of His creations. And thus we move closer to G'd and to our purpose in life, to be a light unto the nations of the world.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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