OpinionTorah Portion

Mighty but moral

It isn’t easy to be both, but we’re doing our best.

An illustration of Moses parting the sea. Image: Mashosh/Shutterstock
An illustration of Moses parting the sea. Image: Mashosh/Shutterstock
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

The Children of Israel were caught, quite literally, “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” Pharaoh and his chariots were in hot pursuit of the newly freed Israelites and caught up to them as they reached the sea. With nowhere to turn, panic and pandemonium broke out.

But Moses told the people to calm down: “Have no fear! Stand fast and see God’s salvation that He will perform for you today! You may be seeing the Egyptians today, but you will never see them again! God will do battle for you and you shall remain silent.”

As Moses raised his staff over the water, the sea split, and in arguably the greatest of all Biblical miracles, the Jewish people crossed the sea on dry land. Then the waters came crashing down on the pursuing Egyptians and they drowned.

A few verses earlier we read: “And the Children of Israel marched out of Egypt triumphantly.” Literally, the words are b’yad ramah: “With hands held high.” Rashi interprets this to mean “with exalted power” or “triumphantly.” Not only with “hands held high,” but with heads held high.

So, our first message from this week’s parsha, Beshalach, is that Jews should always be strong and proud and not feel that we owe anyone any apologies—not the Palestinians, not the United Nations, not even the United States and certainly not The New York Times. Our cause is just; our response to the Oct. 7 massacres and atrocities is legitimate and necessary; and those who don’t understand what genocide means should consult the dictionary before they run to the Hague.

But there is an additional message in our parsha. After their mortal enemies are drowned in the sea, Moses and the Israelites sing “Az Yashir,” the famous Song of the Sea, in thanksgiving and praise to God for His miraculous deliverance. According to the Talmud, when the Jews sang, the angels above joined them in song. But the Almighty Himself intervened and stopped them from singing.

Why? Because “the work of My hands are drowning at sea, and you are singing?”

In other words: It’s one thing for the Jews to sing over the supernatural salvation from their pursuers and captors; but you angels, what do you have to sing about? Rather, show some sensitivity to the fact that the human beings I created are dying.

From this we learn the profundity of the Jewish moral ethos. Even though the Egyptians had tortured their Jewish slaves mercilessly for many decades, when they die there is nothing to celebrate and we may not sing with gay abandon.

We can rejoice over our own deliverance from danger. We may sing about our salvation and tout our triumphs. But Jews do not take delight in the death of even our most vile enemies.

This is, in fact, one of the reasons why we recite only the abridged Hallel on the last days of Passover, which commemorate the Splitting of the Sea. We sing God’s praises, but our praise is somewhat muted because of the deaths of the Egyptians, evil as they might have been.

The origins of our moral compass long precede the Splitting of the Sea. Our patriarch Jacob expressed these values centuries earlier. His twin brother Esau was coming to exact revenge for what he perceived as the injustice of Jacob’s purchase of Esau’s birthright from him, which led to their father Isaac blessing Jacob and not Esau. As they prepared to meet, Esau approached with 400 armed desperadoes. There was no doubt that he had murder on his mind. 

“And Jacob was very frightened and pained” over the impending confrontation with Esau. Jacob was afraid with good reason. But he was also “pained” because, as Rashi says, “he may be compelled to kill others in self-defense.”

This holds true today. Despite all the criticism of Israel’s so-called “disproportionate” war in Gaza, the IDF is still the most moral army in the history of the world. Jews may be tough and tenacious in battle, but we remain moral, ethical, sensitive and compassionate human beings. All of human life is sacred to us, including Palestinian lives and, believe it or not, even the lives of those who butchered our children. Yes, it is a challenge to be tough and moral. Most armies fail miserably. The IDF deserves the praise of the world, not treacherous and hypocritical condemnations.

I remember well the screaming headlines in 2002 condemning Israel for the so-called “Jenin Massacre” that never happened. Israel correctly denied it outright as a blood libel. Yet the late then-Secretary General of the U.N. Kofi Annan asked, “Can it be that the whole world is wrong, and Israel is right?” The answer, as so many times in history, was yes. The whole world was wrong and Israel was right. The Palestinians had made up the “massacre” out of whole cloth. It was just another Big Lie in the Middle East’s tapestry of falsehood. It took a few months, but eventually the U.N. itself issued an official report that admitted that there was no massacre whatsoever. Annan never apologized.

Arab blood is worth infinitely more to Jews than Jewish blood is to Arabs. I’ll go further: Arab blood is more sacred to a Jew than it is to an Arab. As Golda Meir once famously stated, “Peace will come to the Middle East when the Arabs will love their own children more than they hate ours.”

We are witnessing a stunning example of this in Gaza today. The IDF does its best to protect the children of Gaza while Hamas keeps putting its own children in the line of fire.

The twin teachings of our weekly parsha are: Be proud and walk tall. Hold your hands and heads high with no apologies. But at the same time, remain moral, ethical and sensitive to the losses of our enemies. This is the Jewish way.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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