As someone who is uncomfortable with war as a way of solving problems, I always search deep inside myself during the week of Parashat Beshalach, in which we are finally freed from Egypt and leave in a whirlwind of death, destruction and God’s awesome power. According to the Slonimer Rebbe, a wonderful 20th century commentator known for the Netivot Shalom, God needed the plagues and the strong show of force to rouse the people from their slave mentality. Why should the Israelites choose to leave the relative comfort of the status quo — although it is slavery, what’s known is often seen as safer — to follow an unknown, unproven God? God needed a show of force to free our ancestors.
I look for some nugget, some insight below the surface of the peshat, the literal reading of the text, which uses the image of war several times in this parasha. Here is what I found for this year.
Over the past 15 years, one of the blessings in my life has been yoga — a way of strengthening, toning and energizing my body and spirit. Among the postures that have intrigued me is the “warrior” pose. There are a few different warrior poses, each focused on balance, core strength and grounding. Yet the name “warrior” has always troubled me, especially in understanding yoga as a practice of peace, tranquility and repose. However, one of my teachers helped me understand that warrior is about increasing energy and strength, qualities needed if we are to succeed in life. Being a warrior is not solely about fighting or going to war; being a warrior is cultivating the inner strength, tenacity and confidence to live a life of integrity and intention. These are the attributes that I am focused on when I read about “going to battle” in this week’s parasha.
Right at the very beginning, as the Israelites are just leaving Egypt, the Torah tells us that God “did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt’” (Exodus 13:17). Ramban understood this to mean that “although the way through the Philistine land was more direct, God was afraid that the people would be discouraged if they had to fight their way through.”
That is one way of understanding this situation. Another is that the people had not yet steeled themselves with the necessary “warrior” attributes to live as free people. Slaves all their lives, our ancestors were lacking the courage, determination, will and strength to defend themselves against the outside forces of life; God was not worried that they would lose the battle, but rather that they would choose to return to Egypt.
I understand the battle here as one of overcoming the inner fear surrounding becoming free people. The Hebrew for war, milchamah, comes from the root for “warrior”; being a warrior in strength doesn’t have to be synonymous with war. In fact, in a midrashic context, the root for milchamah is also the same letters as the word lechem, bread. While they are not necessarily related etymologically, I do see a relationship: being a warrior in life is about finding the attributes needed to sustain oneself, especially in the face of challenge.
Another profound use of the word milchamah comes in the Song of Sea, Moshe’s famous epic poem reacting to the awesomeness of crossing the sea and surviving the Egyptian army’s final push. “Adonai ish milchamah, Adonai sh’mo” (“Adonai is a man of war, Adonai is God’s name”) (Exodus 15:3). This has been a challenging verse for many people, but if we understand the phrase to be “Adonai is a warrior,” instead of “man of war,” then the poem can be expressing Moshe’s (and our) feeling that God is the source of our courage, the source of our inspiration and the source of our own inner strength and “warrior spirit.”
If God is the grounding for going to war, as God has been in the past in many religious traditions, we have a much harder time arguing that war is not the answer to our great global problems. Seeing God as the source of our “warrior spirit,” however, offers us a new paradigm for how to receive Divine inspiration for our earthly challenges. May that “warrior spirit” infuse us all this Shabbat as we hear the Song of the Sea.
Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.