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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beshalach: Focus on favours
Moses answered the Jewish people and said, "… G'd will fight for you and you shall remain silent." If the Jewish people had the power to fight against Amalek, they had the power to fight the Egyptians as well. Ammonite and Moabite males may not intermarry into the Jewish people even after conversion. The Torah considers someone who caused another to sin to have done a more serious transgression than the one who kills another person. If someone who had selfish intentions is rewarded like the Egyptians, how much more is the reward for those who unselfishly help others. The Torah teaches us that although the Jewish people suffered terribly at the hands of the Egyptians, nevertheless we may never forget that in our time of need they were instrumental in benefiting us for a number of years. In three places the Torah prohibits us from returning to settle in Egypt. The Torah educates us to appreciate when someone did a good deed and to remember it, even for generations to come. We should not let later acts of evil wipe out the memory of earlier benefits. G'd did not want us to go and fight a nation that had provided us with hospitality in our time of need. If we shift our focus from evil and mistreatment to favours and benefits, we will live a Torah life of pleasantness.
In the beginning of this week's parasha (Shemos 14:8), the Torah relates how G'd strengthened the heart of Pharaoh. Pharaoh gathered his army and pursued the Jewish people who, a few days earlier, left Egypt with "an upraised arm". When the Jewish people saw how they were being pursued by the Egyptians they became very frightened and cried out to G'd. At the same time, they approached Moses and said to him (Shemos 14:11-12), "Are there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness … isn't this what we said to you in Egypt, 'leave us and we will serve Egypt' It would be better for us that we should serve Egypt than die in the wilderness." Moses answered them and said (Shemos 14:13-14), "Do not fear. Stand firm and you will see G'd's salvation … G'd will fight for you and you shall remain silent."
Not fight the Egyptians
It seems strange that the Jewish people were instructed to remain silent rather than engage the Egyptians in war. Earlier in the Parasha (Shemos 13:18) it is related how the Jewish people were armed when they left Egypt, so obviously they had the means to enter into battle. In fact, Rashi quotes from our sages that these arms were used later in the wars against Amalek, Sichon, Og and Midian. It cannot be that they were not yet organized and ready for warfare. For although the wars against Sichon, Og and Midian only took place near the end of their sojourn in the wilderness, they were already attacked by Amalekites soon after the crossing of the sea (see Shemos 17:8-13). At that point, Moses instructed Joshua to go out and fight Amalek. Joshua was victorious and weakened the Amalekites who retreated. They could have killed them all. However, Rashi explains, in the name of the Mechilta, that they were explicitly instructed only to weaken them and not to kill them all. Obviously if they had the power to fight against Amalek, they had the power to fight the Egyptians as well. So why were the Jewish people instructed not to fight the Egyptians?
Not marry Ammonites and Moabites
We might be able to answer this question by analyzing two commandments mentioned in Parashas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 23:4-9). It says, "An Ammonite and a Moabite may not enter the congregation of G'd, even the tenth generation [after conversion] may not come to the congregation of G'd forever … You shall not reject an Edomite for he is your brother. You shall not reject an Egyptian for you were a sojourner in his country … Their third generation may enter the congregation of G'd." The first commandment refers to the prohibition to marry an Ammonite or Moabite male. Neither they nor their offspring may marry into the Jewish people even after conversion. On the other hand, the second commandment teaches that the grandchildren of the converts of Edomites and Egyptians may marry any Jewish person.
Cause to sin
Rashi quotes the Sifri (Paragraph 117) that points out that this teaches us that someone who causes another to sin is worse than one who kills another person. For although the person who gets killed is deprived of his life in this world, the one who has been brought to sin will have to suffer the consequences both in this world and in the World to Come. This explains why the Edomites who engaged the Jewish people in war and the Egyptians who drowned the Jewish newborn males shall not be totally rejected. On the other hand, the Ammonites and Moabites who caused the Jewish people to sin (see Bamidbar 25:1-9) can never marry into the Jewish people.
Reward for unselfish intentions
Although we suffered tremendously throughout the bondage in Egypt, the Torah instructs us to remember that originally at the time of Joseph, when there was a famine in the Land of Canaan, Pharaoh invited Jacob and his whole family to find refuge in Egypt. The Sifri teaches that we are expected to remember this although Pharaoh's motivation was selfish. Pharaoh saw how Egypt prospered under Joseph wise administration. Both he and his ministers were eager to invite the rest of Joseph's family, anticipating great profits from this invitation. Concludes the Sifri, if someone who had selfish intentions is rewarded like the Egyptians, how much more is the reward for those who unselfishly help others.
Never forget our benefactors
Our sojourn in Egypt is comparable to a couple who agree to raise a foster child. They make a condition that they shall be paid for bringing up the child and provide for all his needs. After a number of years, the couple starts to exploit the child and expects him to do all kinds of menial jobs in the house, sometimes even beyond his capabilities. At times they shout at him and abuse him, and the poor child suffers terribly. This continues for a while until a good-hearted person finds out about the child's ordeal, helps him to get out of his misery, and finds him a new home where all his needs are well taken care of. In our eyes, it would seem odd to expect this child to have any kind of appreciation towards the abusive couple who caused him so much suffering. However, the Torah here teaches us to look at it from a different perspective. Although the Jewish people suffered terribly at the hands of the Egyptians, nevertheless we may never forget that in our time of need they were instrumental in benefiting us for a number of years. In the same way, the child should never forget how this couple took care of him when he needed them.
Prohibited from returning to Egypt
This is not to say that the Torah wants us to have a friendly and cordial relationship with the Egyptians. Just like the child should never have to go back to the first couple, we should neither forget the benefits we enjoyed in Egypt, nor the evil they did to us and our children. In three places the Torah prohibits us from returning to settle in Egypt. The most explicit one is in Parashas Shoftim, the portion dealing with the conduct of a Jewish king, where it says (Devarim 17:16): "And G'd said to you, you shall not any more return on this road (to Egypt) again." The Talmud (Succah 51b) describes the magnificent basilica synagogue of Alexandria that had room for a million two hundred thousand people. However, says the Talmud, all of them were killed because they transgressed the prohibition against settling in Egypt. The Rambam (Laws of Kings 5:7) brings this prohibition and says: "One may live all over the world but for the land of Egypt." The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 500) explains that the reason for this prohibition is due to the wickedness and sinfulness of the Egyptians. G'd redeemed us from Egypt, says the Chinuch, so that we should go in the ways of truth. He instructed us never to return there, so that we should not be defiled amongst the Egyptians and be influenced by their despicable lifestyle.
Evil not wipe out benefits
In general we tend to focus on the negative, such as mistreatment and evil. Somehow, over the years, we forget the positive favours and kind deeds we have experienced. Even in our relationship with G'd we are quicker to complain about our problems in life than to thank for all the lovingkindness He bestows upon us. This all stems from an attitude that we feel that we deserve whatever good happens to us. Similarly, we feel entitled to whatever people do for us, especially if we pay for their service. On the other hand, if something bad happens, G'd forbid, or if somebody mistreats us, or does an injustice to us, it will make a very strong impression and we will remember it for years. We feel that we do not deserve anything bad should happen to us. And we find it very difficult to forgive or forget if someone stepped on our toes. The Torah here educates us to focus on and appreciate any good deed that we benefit from. We should remember it and pass it on to future generations, and not let later acts of evil wipe out the memory of earlier benefits.
G'd fights the Egyptians
With this insight we can understand why the Jewish people were instructed to keep silent and leave it to G'd to fight the war against the Egyptians. Although the Egyptians did us a lot of evil and caused us a lot of suffering and pain, G'd did not want us to go and fight a nation that had provided us with hospitality in our time of need.
Torah lifestyle of pleasantness
We do not need to worry about justice. G'd punishes the evildoers, and He will make sure that justice is done to those who oppress us. However, at the same time as G'd punishes the evildoers, He educates us not to forget if we received a benefit. In our personal lives, this attitude can help us to have a better and more pleasant life. If we shift our focus from evil and mistreatment to favours and benefits, we will live a Torah life of pleasantness. As King Solomon (Mishlei 3:17) says, "Its [the Torah's] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace."
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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